Choosing A Road Bike

Buying a road bike is one of the most exciting purchases you’ll ever make. This guide is primarily aimed at those buying their first road bike, but I hope to be able to use my experience in bicycle retail to help all cyclists make more informed choices, and save themselves some cash along the way.

Chances are that until now you’ve been riding around on a mountain or hybrid bike, and are looking for some serious speed gains by upgrading to a road bike. However, it can seem like a complete maze. How much should I spend? What makes bikes more expensive? What’s a groupset? What’s the right size? Should I get a women’s bike? What can I upgrade? Having spent two years working on the shop floor at a highly reputable bike retailer, these are all questions I hope to answer in the course of this article. We’ll assume you’re a triathlete at this stage, but if you are simply looking to get fit or look to take place in road cycling events, then disregard the references to triathlon, the rest of the points will be just as relevant.

What is a road bike?

This may seem like a silly question to ask, but it’s worth making sure we’re on the same page before we start. A road bike is a lightweight bike designed exclusively for use on the road, traditionally with narrow tyres and dropped handlebars. It is not a:

Hybrid bike

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Normally identifiable by the flat rather than dropped handlebars, these have wider tyres with more tread in them to handle minor off road sections more easily such as bridleways and towpaths.

You don’t want one because: It is much heavier, and you’ll be slower due to the drag created by wider handlebars. A few manufacturers make high end hybrid bikes, but most are cheap with components that will break/wear quickly, and wheels which will buckle easily. The saddles also tend to be awful.

Cyclocross bike:

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Very similar, and easily confused with a road bike by newbies, check for the wider, lumpier tyres and greater clearance around the tyres themselves as they get clogged with mud.

You don’t want one because: The geometry is different on a cyclocross bike, with the bottom bracket (where the cranks connect to the frame) being higher, and often further forwards than on a road bike. These are designed for an hour of hard riding, not a long day in the saddle.

Track bike/fixie:

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Used on velodromes, these often catch the eyes of customers because they are so cheap and light.

You don’t want one because: They have no brakes! Even if you were skilled enough to ride one on the road, they are banned in triathlons as they do not have functional brakes, you slow down instead by slowing your pedalling and pushing against the pedals. They also have no gears, making them very challenging to ride in traffic or on hills, for experienced riders only.

Gravel bike

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The gravel bike is a recent addition to the bike world, it has a very similar geometry to a road bike but the wheels/tyres of an off road bike. They are setup for comfort, and are very popular in North America where there are large amounts of roads/tracks are gravel. 

You don’t want one because: They tend to be slightly heavier and not as responsive as proper road bikes, and the heavier tyres will have a notable effect on your speed. Additionally many only have one chainring which can make life harder for you on steep uphills or downhills. However, if you’re only going to be taking part in short triathlons and don’t plan on spending much time riding on the road, then you could certainly get away with it.

Triathlon/TT bike

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I know it has triathlon in the title, but if you don’t know what a triathlon bike is, you don’t need one. These are bikes designed for pure speed, where your elbows rest on specially designed pads and your arms rest on aluminium/carbon fibre bars, putting your body in a very aerodynamic position, narrowing your body and reducing the amount of drag.

You don’t want one because: You have no access to the brakes when in the aero position and it can feel very twitchy. They’re the Ferrari of the cycling world, so to use one with any confidence you need to have first pushed the limits of cheaper, more accessible machinery.

Now we know we need a road bike, we need to look at what kind of road bike we’re after. There are three different types of road bike, just to confuse matters even more!

Performance Bike

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Trek Emonda

Examples: Trek Emonda, Cervelle R series, Specialised Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix

These are the lightest and most responsive road bikes out there, built to be as quick as possible uphill. On hilly or rolling courses these are the bikes pros will be using, where every gram matters to help them get to the top of the hill in first place. These tend to be fairly aggressive bikes, and you may struggle to get comfortable on one if you have limited mobility. For triathletes weight is rarely the primary concern however, so these aren’t bikes I generally tend to steer athletes in the direction of.

Endurance Bike

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Specialized Roubaix

Examples: Cervelo C series, Cannondale Synapse, Specialized Roubaix, Trek Domane

These bikes are perfect for those getting into the sport later in life, or those who are more worried about all day comfort than outright speed. If you’re looking at at Ironman event, a road endurance bike is probably your best bet. Some models include various springs/suspension tricks to soften the ride, but at the expense of stiffness.

Road Aero

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Cervelo S5

Examples: Trek Madone, Specialized Venge, Cannondale SystemSix, Cervelo S Series 

This subcategory appeared relatively recently, a bike where the tubing and cabling is all designed to be as fast as possible in a straight line. Where performance and endurance bikes normally have rounded tubing, a road aero bike will be comprised of tubes shaped like aerofoils much like the wing of a plane, to allow for extra speed. That being said, you have to be going quite fast to gain any real benefit from this, close to 30KPH, to see the very small improvements. Some of the higher end models come with handlebars which are tapered for additional aero benefit, which can restrict your ability to fit aftermarket aero bars (to retrofit your bike into a cheap triathlon bike), so bear this in mind before you splash your cash.

Finally, we have the contentious matter of women’s bikes. Many women will look only at women’s bikes believing they are the only bikes that will fit them, but the bike industry is slowly turning its back on the idea of a women’s specific range. Your traditional women’s bike will have a slightly shorter top tube as women are perceived to have relatively shorter arms than men… and that’s about it, apart from a different paint job. Specialized (the brand) looked at the bike fit data from thousands of riders who came to them for fits over the years, realising that the majority of women would be perfectly comfortable on a unisex bike, and that those who struggled with the long reach could go for a slightly shorter stem without any major effect on the handling. I know far more women who ride unisex bikes than who ride women’s bikes, so don’t feel you’ll come across as being masculine or be uncomfortable on a unisex bike, the items you need to worry about gender specificity for are saddles and clothing. 

How much should I spend?

This question comes down to your individual budget, but I can provide you an outline of what you can expect for your money when looking at new, fully priced road bikes.

£500-£1000

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Specialized Allez- £650

These are entry level road bikes. I bought a Specialized Allez for £500 as my first bike, and overtook hundreds of people on fully specced triathlon bikes over the years I had it. They’re not as light as others, and won’t have the fanciest groupset, but they’re still perfectly lethal in the right hands. You’ll probably find yourself looking to upgrade components on this kind of bike within a year or two from a mixture of performance concerns and wear, leaving you with a bike you’ve spent several times the cost of the bike upgrading, so bear this in mind.

£1000-£1500

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Bianchi Via Nirone 105- £1375 

This is about as much as anyone needs to spend on a road bike, you don’t get a whole lot more for your money beyond this price point. Compared to entry level bikes, you get lighter, more responsive groupsets, stronger wheels, a lighter, stiffer frame and often a few little extras depending on brand, such as an integrated hydration system or special forks that reduce vibration. 

£1500+

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Pinarello Dogma F12 ETAP- £12,000

These are high end road bikes, once you’re spending over £2000 the diminishing returns start ramping up considerably. You can get high end groupsets, nicer wheels and very lightweight frames, but you probably wouldn’t have noticed the differences unless the salesperson pointed them out. These bikes can also be tricky to maintain due to their design, so aren’t really suitable for the novice bike mechanic.

So, if we assume for a moment that the money isn’t a problem, how much should you spend on your first road bike? On the one hand you could accept that you’re probably going to crash/drop the bike a few times in the first year, you could opt for a cheaper bike to play with so that when you upgrade to a nicer bike in the future you’ll have got all the rookie mistakes out of the way. On the other hand, you may get frustrated with a cheaper bike, realise that to upgrade the groupset costs almost as much as a new bike, and figure you may as well pay the extra £200 at the bike shop for the next groupset up (I’ll explain groupsets soon, I promise). It really is up to you, but the next section on where you money actually goes should help.

Where does your money go?

It’s not just weight that you save when you upgrade, everything about a top end bike is different to a cheaper bike, let’s look at some examples:

Frame material

There are four main materials used to build bicycle frames, each with their own pros and cons. 

Steel

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Colnago Master

“Steel is real” the purists claim, and they’re right. No other bike frame can be repaired with a blowtorch. The versatility of the material makes it very popular with custom frame builders, who can build you a frame bespoke to your measurements. The properties of the material also means it will provide a dampening effect, ironing out some smaller bumps in the road for you, but very few new bikes are made of high quality lightweight steel, and are instead made of heavy, thick tubes which give the material a bad name. One for the connoisseurs more than your garden variety cyclist, but not to be written off either.

Pros: Malleable, comfortable ride, cheap

Cons: Difficult to find a high quality option

Aluminium

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CAAD-13

This is the most popular material for bikes under the £1000 mark, but is often given a bad name by those who believe carbon is the only way to go. I have always ridden aluminium road bikes, and while I can tell a difference when I throw my leg over my carbon TT frame, it’s far from the heavy and bone shaking riding experience some would have you believe. Aluminium is more durable than carbon fibre, which can be prone to fracturing if it’s hit in the wrong way at the wrong angle, making it the material of choice for many criterium racers where they’ll be looking for a cheaper, more durable frame to throw around corners elbow to elbow with other riders. Cannondale have made a great success of aluminium with their CAAD range, affordable, speedy bikes that look great and handle well. 

Pros: Light, responsive, durable

Cons: Slightly harsher ride

Carbon Fibre

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Cervelo R5

“You need to get yourself a carbon bike, it’s what Tour de France riders use” is the advice given to many aspiring road cyclists. Carbon fibre sounds sexy, it’s somewhat mysterious, has connotations with F1 and will feel light as a feather compared to the chopper they used to ride around the local park in their childhood. Many road cyclists will only have ever ridden a carbon fibre bike so the material is accredited with all the benefits that come with upgrading to a road bike. The truth of the matter is that not all carbon fibre is made equal, and a cheap carbon fibre frame is less desirable than a nicely made aluminium frame. That being said, it is probably the ideal material to make bikes out of, providing stiffness while also dampening road vibrations. When you ride a carbon fibre bike it just feels different, it wants to be ridden fast. I made a comment earlier about carbon fibre being more fragile than aluminium, but that’s not to suggest these bikes are made out of sugar glass and should be handled with extreme care, these are durable and well made pieces of kit designed to take knocks from potholes and survive a minor crash. The issues come when you stress the material in an unusual way – bikes are designed to take a lot of punishment vertically. But, I once watched someone’s frame become unrideable after being blown over and landing on its side, hitting the ground horizontally in a way that cracked the material. Even if you are unlucky enough to find a fracture when inspecting your bike, repairing it isn’t as expensive as you may think.

Pros: Light, stiff, yet smooth ride

Cons: Expensive, not as durable as other materials

Titanium

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Seven Axxiom

Arguably the highest quality material out there, this is the one material I have zero experience of riding, as I’ve never met anyone with a titanium frame brave enough to let me ride it! The material is a lot like steel in that it can be used to make very custom frames, making it the material of choice for some boutique brands. The material is very difficult to work with due to the temperatures and environment it is malleable in, but I understand it gives a “unique” ride quality that’s very smooth. It won’t jump out of the blocks like a carbon frame will, but it’s no slouch either.

Pros: Smooth ride quality, millimetre perfect custom frames

Cons: Very expensive

Groupsets

A groupset refers to all parts of your drivetrain, this is typically the gear shifters, the front and rear mechs, chainrings, cranks, bottom bracket, cassette and brake callipers. The combination of these parts saves a huge amount of weight and also had an effect on how smoothly your bike shifts, how responsive the brakes are e.t.c. 

As I alluded to earlier, upgrading your groupset is very expensive, so it’s worth spending a bit more to get the one you want when purchasing the bike. But what’s a good groupset? Here are the most popular Shimano groupsets. I have nothing against SRAM or Campagnolo, but replacement parts can be tricky to find in a pinch and very few bikes are sold with these groupsets as standard.

Claris

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Found primarily on budget bikes such as those found in Halfords, it’s very basic and the components don’t last long, probably best avoided if you can afford to. It has eight gears which can make it difficult to find the right gear compared to more expensive groupsets.

Sora

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This is a nine speed groupset aimed at newer cyclists, it can feel a bit clunky and it’s fairly heavy, but does the job reliably. 

Tiagra

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Now we’re looking at a ten speed groupset, this gives us more flexibility and the gear changes are just that much nicer, to the point that you’d probably notice if you rode both groupsets blindfolded. Please don’t ride bikes blindfolded.

105

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In my humble opinion this is all anyone really needs. It’s light, very responsive and now 11 speed as standard. I don’t buy bikes which have anything less than 105 on them, and I only run Ultegra on my triathlon bike as that was the only option when I bought it. Shimano 105 is an incredible groupset and does everything you could reasonably ask for from a mechanical setup, anything else will make minimal difference.

Ultegra

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The only real difference between Ultegra and 105 is the materials used, which means the Shimano Ultegra R8000 is 191g lighter than the Shimano 105 R7000. As the price difference for the new groupsets is the best part of £500, you have to ask yourself how much 200g really matters to you. It does have the option of smaller shifters which could be appealing for those with smaller hands, and it also comes in a Di2 (electronic) format which has some benefits I’ll go into shortly.

Dura-Ace

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This is the kingpin of the groupsets, the absolute top end, have it all version used by professional racers, using the latest technology available. It is significantly more expensive than Ultegra, and offers very little in the way of tangible benefit, providing more of a conversation point than any performance gains. Technology from Dura-Ace tends to trickle down over the years, and as such the current Sora will probably perform better than the Dura-Ace of the mid 90s. For a first road bike, this is probably overkill, if only for the cost of replacing parts that become worn/damaged.

One thing to watch out for is brands adorning their bike with an Ultegra rear mech and Chainset (where the branding is most visible) but using 105 shifters, cassette, front mech e.t.c. as this is a good way to lure customers in. This won’t make much of a difference to your riding, but there will be a sense of being deceived when you find out. A good question to ask is “Does it have full Ultegra?”.

Riding a Dura-Ace and Claris bike back to back you’ll notice a difference, and this is one of the primary reasons you’d want to spend more on a bike, however it’s important to note that no matter how lightweight or responsive a groupset is, it won’t ride up the hills for you. If someone tries to tell you that you’d be able to keep up on the hills if you bought Dura-Ace, they’ve probably got shares in Shimano. 

With regards to electronic shifting, this opens up a world of possibilities for us. Electronic shifting uses buttons rather than levers for changing gear, meaning less strength is required to change chainrings (you can laugh now, but after ten hours in the saddle these things matter), as well as requiring much less in the way of maintenance. Rather than having to index gears on a regular basis as the mech gets knocked or the cable stretches over time, you simply fit and forget, making sure to recharge the battery. SRAM Etap allows you to place shifters anywhere on the bike using its wireless system, and the new Dura-Ace allows you to shift all the way through your gears only using the right hand shifter, changing chainring for you automatically. The batteries and junction box can add some extra weight but this is offset somewhat by the loss of gear cables, and I’d go for electronic shifting over mechanical in nearly every scenario. However for your first road bike, it’s probably overkill.

Brakes

There are currently two braking standards available for road bikes, disc brakes and calliper brakes. I would recommend disc brakes if you are just starting cycling as this is the way the industry is moving and they perform much better in the wet. I won’t go into detail here as I’ve already covered the points in this article: Should you run disc brakes?  They do raise the price slightly, but I believe it’s a price worth paying.

Wheels

It’s not very common for manufacturers to throw in upgraded wheels on bikes, normally they’re pretty cheap and nasty, as wheels are so expensive they bump the price up massively. However once you get to the £2500+ mark bikes may come with some higher end wheels as standard, which help save weight, improve acceleration and last longer thanks to higher quality bearings and a stronger build quality. This isn’t the place to go into the nitty gritty of wheels, but if you can’t see why one bike is a lot more than another with similar specs, check the wheels, these are very expensive to upgrade further down the line.

Warranty

This is often overlooked in the second hand bike market, the peace of mind that comes with having a warranty. Generally components are covered for a few years, with most manufacturers offering a lifetime warranty on the frame. This means that not only can you ride around safe in the knowledge that financially you’ll be covered if you have an accident, but the bikes are manufactured to a standard where they feel confident that it will not fail on you. 

Marketing

Big brands such as Specialized will provide bikes for multiple teams in the World Tour, have a wide ranging print and web advertising strategy, hold events, run competitions and do everything they can to sell more bikes. The money for this has to come from somewhere, so you can be pretty certain that a portion of any Specialized bike you guy goes towards covering the cost of the Tarmac that Peter Sagan totalled in a group sprint.

Research and Development

As I alluded to when talking about Dura-Ace, when you buy a top of the range product, you’re paying for the R+D that went into the technology involved, not just the materials and manufacturing costs. This is where diminishing returns really kicks in, the more expensive the bike, the larger proportion of the cost went into research and development, for what will likely be a marginal benefit.

To conclude the section on pricing, I don’t believe there’s much point spending over £1500 on a road bike, especially your first. You are of course welcome to spend as much as you like, but don’t expect a £5000 bike to go five times as fast as a £1000 bike. 

Geometry and fit

Far more important than brand, price, wheelset, groupset or colour is whether you are comfortable on the bike. Let’s look at some basic concepts.

Drop

Drop
This one is fiddle to measure, the horizontal tape measure is providing a horizontal line from the saddle, the measurement of the drop is taken from the vertical tape measure, which is 5CM in this case.

This is the difference between the saddle height and height of the bars. The higher the drop the more of an aggressive, aerodynamic position you’ll find yourself in, but at the cost of comfort. Drop can be decreased by lowering the saddle or adding spacers to the headset, but most road bikes will have at least 2CM of drop, as otherwise you’ll be sitting bolt upright. There’s nothing wrong with this if you have back pain or are incredibly nervous, but you’ll get much more out of your cycling if you start to increase the drop. Drop can be increased by raising the saddle or removing spacers on the headset, but I recommend you try this slowly rather than jumping from 2CM right up to 10CM, anything in double digits is extremely aggressive and unlikely to be comfortable for longer rides. The drop is very flexible and should not usually determine which bike you buy, but it’s worth checking how many spacers are available at the front of the bike, as you may not be able to get the handlebars as high as you like on some of the more aggressive models out there. 

Reach

Reach
The “bike fitter’s reach” being measured from the tip of the saddle to the joint of the stem, in this case 50CM.

The reach quite simply represents how long the bike is, measured from the saddle to the stem by bike fitters, however bike manufacturers tend to measure from an imaginary line extending up from the bottom bracket across to the headset. As you would expect, more aggressive bikes have a longer reach, with more relaxed bikes having a shorter reach which doesn’t require as much flexibility to maintain. Reach can be increased or shortened by swapping out the stem, however this will also have effect on the handling, which may be unwanted. Having a longer stem may make it feel like you’re riding a boat, where a short stem can result in some unwanted oversteer. 

Stack Height

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Measured from the bottom bracket to the top tube, the stack height would be 49CM

The stack height is measured from the bottom bracket to the top tube, the tube which sits between your legs. A stack height which is too low will make it a very ungainly experience riding the bike while a stack height which is too high will make it incredibly difficult to get an effective, comfortable saddle height as well as making mounting/dismounting an extreme sport. You should expect to lean the bike slightly to the side to mount/dismount for an effective road riding position, only bringing it completely upright when you push off and mount the saddle. 

Wheelbase

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We’re a bit wonky here do to the limitations of a tape measure, but you get the idea!

This is simply the length of a bike, but has a noticeable effect on handling. A bike with a longer wheelbase will feel more stable but sloppier in the corners, while a bike with a short wheelbase will feel like it’s on rails in the corners, at the tradeoff of feeling twitchier. Endurance and TT bikes will normally have longer wheelbases for stability, with performance bikes being slightly shorter making them better suited to twisting switchbacks or a criterium circuit. The differences can be very small here, so don’t expect to be able to spot them with the naked eye.

Shape of saddle

Saddle Shape
A Specialized Toupe, an aggressive men’s saddle

Moving away from the bike itself slightly here, the type of saddle you’re running is second in importance only to the saddle height when it comes to your comfort on the bike. We all have soft tissue down there which doesn’t like to be squished, and we all have sit bones which are different widths and shapes, choosing the right saddle is essential for all day comfort on the bike, and I’m 95% sure that the saddle that comes with your bike will be wrong for you. Look for a saddle with a cutout in the middle (very few individuals suit saddles without) which offers a 30 day exchange programme, where you can try the saddle for 30 days and exchange it for another from the same manufacturer if it’s not working for you. Unfortunately a saddle can feel great when you try it at the shop, only to leave you in agony after two hours of riding. Please don’t be tempted by the big, cushioned saddles, they may be comfortable for nipping down the shops, but they will be uncomfortable on longer rides for the same reason you’ll start shifting around if sat in a big, soft chair for too long. More minimal saddles are more comfortable for long rides for the same reason you can spend all night perched on a bar stool with minimal discomfort. The best way to find the right saddle for you is to have a bike fit.

Saddle fore/aft

Saddle Fore:Aft
Notoriously difficult to measure and requiring a weighted pendulum, this measures how far left or right the saddle sits.

The fore/aft of the saddle represents how far the saddle is behind or in front of the bottom bracket. Getting this nailed in can be notoriously difficult, but those planning to use clip on aero bars will probably need to move their saddle slightly forwards to accommodate for the more forward position.

Saddle tilt

This is easily solved with an Allen key and a spirit level so isn’t a factor when looking at bikes, but it’s something that can ruin cycling for many if they hit a pothole and don’t realise their saddle has slipped forward slightly. Saddles should by and large be completely level, there are only a handful of situations where a couple of degrees of tilt back or forth may prove to be advantageous, but this is for a bike fitter to recommend on. If you’re suffering with saddle discomfort, whip out a spirit level and make sure it’s dead level. 

Handelbar width

Handlebar Width
Handlebar width is measured from the middle of each side of the handlebars rather than the edges, making these 40CM bars.

How wide your handlebars are will have an effect on both your comfort and the handling of the bike. As you can probably guess, narrower bars will result in a twitchier ride, but keeping your shoulders narrow also provide you with a slight aerodynamic benefit. Wider handlebars will provide you with more stability, but at the cost of some top end speed. What’s more important than aerodynamics or handling is comfort, as you want to avoid any back or shoulder pain from riding bars that are too narrow or wide. Rather than requiring a different bike, this is simply a case of swapping out handlebars, but it’s worth looking into this when you purchase your bike as you may be able to sweet talk the bike shop into swapping the handlebars out for you if it secures them a sale. 

Handlebar Depth

Depth
Handlebar depth isn’t normally measured accurately, rather referring to shallow or deep bars, but here is a visualisation for you

Riding on the drops can be intimidating for many, lowering your body position even further. The reason many riders find it difficult to ride the drops is that they don’t have the right handlebars, and can’t reach the gears or brakes. You may need help from your bike shop or bike fitter to get the right bars for you, but either way you’ll probably have to look at different manufacturers to find a shape that works for you. It may upset some riders to have a pair of Pro handlebars on their Specialized bike, but comfort and fit really are king, and these things are best sorted out when purchasing the bike and you can sell on the original bars as new.

Saddle Height

Saddle Height
The measurement for saddle height is taken at the bottom bracket, in this case 66CM

Nothing will affect your riding enjoyment as much as your saddle height. Too high and your hips will rock from side as you strive for each pedal stroke, feeling unsteady and out of control; while a saddle height which is too low will restrict your ability to put out power and risk knee injury. Even a couple of millimetres can make a difference over long distances. Forget any methods you dad may have taught you about having one foot on the floor, you want to set your saddle height so your knees are just short of locking out at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The best way to get your saddle height spot on is to, you guessed it, get a bike fit. If you live in the London area, we can provide you with a bike fit and advise on the best bike for you to buy, details here.

You can use these measurements to compare your current bike (if applicable) to the bike you’re looking at purchasing. If your current bike has a stack height of 45CM which you find a real struggle to throw your leg over, then you’ll be looking at a size where this is lower. Some websites will ask for your height and inseam measurement (from the floor up to your privates) recommending a size for you based on this, but the best way to find your right size is to throw your leg over the bike itself. Most shops don’t have every bike in every size ready for you to go and try, so if you know there’s a bike you’re dying to get your hands on, phone them up ahead of time, and they’ll build it up for you to come in and try, normally within a few days.

A chap I used to work with tried to pilot a “fit first, but second” movement which seems ludicrous at first, paying for a bike fit before you know which bike you’ll be buying, but where all the charts told me I’d be looking at a 51CM Cervelo P3, he got me on the jig and discovered that while I could fit on a 51, the saddle would be super high, I may have to swap the stem, and it would look pretty ungainly, ordering me a 54CM instead. If you’re looking at spending serious money on a bike, you should consider this as an option.

Apologies if I threw a bit too much bike jargon around there, but these are the biggest factors in bike fit and this is overlooked by many buying their first bike, resulting in discomfort, injury, and just not getting the most out of their cycling.

Choosing the right bike for you

By this point I hope you have a rough idea of what you’re looking to buy, you may decide that you’re going to go for the cheapest frame you can find, or you may be leaning towards an endurance bike, with a 105 groupset and a very relaxed geometry for around the £1500 mark. Alternatively you may be targeting city centre events looking for a top of the range road aero frame with electronic shifting on it where money isn’t a problem. Either way you’re now faced with the question of which bike to order. When visiting a specialist this choice can be overwhelming, should you go for the Cannondale? The Specialised? The Giant? A few factors to consider:

Brand

Some cyclists are adamant that all frames are made in the same factory in Taiwan, badged up with different logos and sold as individual bikes. While this is a gross over-exaggeration, the truth is that there isn’t nearly as much difference between brands as you may be lead to think, especially towards the cheaper end of their range. What does make a big difference though is the customer service and after sales support. I don’t want to land myself in hot water here, but while some brands are known for going out of their way to replace damaged components with minimal fuss, other brands are known for dragging customers through a soul destroying warranty process where they have to pay for their bike to be shipped to a factory in Europe, examined at some point in the next six weeks, where they will most likely declare it wasn’t their responsibility and charge you to courier you broken bike back to you.

Aesthetics

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Some bikes just speak to you

I would think no less of someone if they told me the reason they went for the Trek Domane rather than the Specialized Roubaix because they preferred the colour. You’re going to be spending a lot of money on your bike (even £500 isn’t chicken feed), you want your bike to sit in your hallway begging to be ridden. Your new steed needs to excite you and going for an ugly colour scheme because the salesperson told you it had slightly stiffer cranks than the bike that really spoke to you doesn’t set you up for several years of two wheeled bliss together. Sometimes the go faster stripes are the only thing that get you out the door on an overcast, damp morning.

Discount

If there are two very similar bikes you’re considering, one is full price and one is 20% off, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Your friends may swear by their Canyon, Trek or Binachi, but as we’ve already discussed, the manufacturer of the frame makes very little difference most of the time so as long as the specs are similar, save yourself a bit of cash and go for the discounted bike.

Availability

Towards the end of the bike retail year (late summer/autumn) you can get some fantastic deals on bikes, but popular sizes such as 54cm and 56cm may be difficult to get hold of. If you are in love with a bike but it’s got a six week lead time, where a very similar model is making eyes at you from across the showroom floor, you have to ask yourself how much you prefer the other bike, and how much riding you’d miss out on. If you have an event in six months, six weeks is a good chunk of training you’ll miss out on, especially as there’s always a chance they’ll come back and tell you they couldn’t get hold of it after all. These are all factors you have to take into account based on your individual situation.

Budgeting for extras

Many would be cyclists walk into their local bike shop with £1500 of savings and their eye on a new bike they’ve been courting through the window for a few months. They get measured up, pick out their colour, and head to the bike shop for the big day when they ride their dream bike home.

Shop owner: “Which pedals would you like?”
Customer: “What do you mean?”
SO: “The bike doesn’t come with pedals, which would you like?”
C: “What kind of £1500 bike doesn’t come with pedals?”
SO: “Pedals are very individual, so manufacturers don’t ship them with pedals, as most riders will swap them out to their preferred standard”
C: “How individual can pedals be?”
SO: “Well, you have SPD, SPD-SL, Look Keo, Time, Speedplay…”
C: “Yes, I get the picture, which is the cheapest?”
SO: “We have some Shimano SPD pedals for £30”
C: “That’ll do”
SO: “Great, the shoes are over here”
C: “Shoes?”
SO: “Yes, the shoes which clip into the pedals”
C: “Clip in?”
SO: Yes, the shoes clip into the pedals so you’re attached to the bike, improves acceleration and efficiency”
C: “Blimey, how much are the shoes?”
SO: “Well, they start at £70, shall we try some on?”

This is a familiar conversation for many, and the customer who has stringently saved up (and told their partner) they’d be spending £1500 on a road bike is now going home at least another £100 lighter. Once they’ve picked the shoes, they will be advised to look at other items he’ll have a difficult time without. Let’s look at a full list of items a new cyclist needs to budget for:

Essentials

Helmet: £50

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This is an essential for any riding except the most leisurely cycle path rider in my opinion, all helmets are made to the same safety standard (with the exclusion of MIPS systems) so don’t need you have to spend a fortune to stay safe. More expensive helmets will be lighter and more ventilated, perhaps more aerodynamic, but you don’t need to spend more than £50 for a comfortable lid. Try a few on until you find one that sits securely.

Pedals: £30

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Of all the different standards I recommend either Shimano SPD-SL or Look as they use the three bolt system found on the majority of cycle shoes. Shimano SPD is cheaper and less obstructive when walking around so may appeal to touring cyclists or off road riders, but it can be hard to find shoes which fit you as the range is a lot more restrictive. Spending more than £50 gets you carbon fibre pedals which get lighter and include better quality bearings, but there are better places to spend your money in all honesty so keep it cheap for now.

Shoes: £70

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Shoes generally start at the £70 mark and need to fit your foot. As in, they REALLY need to fit your foot. A lot of cycling shoes come up very narrow, some very long, so try on lots of brands. They should hug your foot very nicely with a little space in the toe box for the foot to swell in the heat. 

Tyres: £60

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The tyres on your new bike are awful. I can say that with relative confidence unless you are spending over £2000 on your bike. High performance tyres provide you with extra puncture protection, reduced rolling resistance and vastly improved grip. Nobody has ever sat at the side of the road grappling with a puncture repair kit in the freezing rain or found themselves in the back of an ambulance with a broken collarbone really smug that they saved £60 on a quality set of tyres. Find more information on the right tyres for you here

Saddle bag and basic tools: £40

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You’ll want a saddle bag to sit behind your seat post with enough supplies to get you out of trouble. I recommend a multi tool (including chain tool), spare chain link, spare inner tube, tyre levers, puncture repair patches and mini pump or C02 canisters. Learn how to fix a puncture on YouTube and you’ll be able to head out feeling a lot more self sufficient. 

Lights: £40

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I recommend running a pair of small flashing lights during the day, and if you’ll be cycling in the half light or darkness, a second more powerful pair you can switch on when visibility starts to drop. When I started cycling lights were big and heavy, chewing through a small fortune’s worth of batteries on the way home from my friend’s house, but today they’re light, compact and for the most part USB rechargeable. It’s a legal requirement in the UK to run lights after sunset so don’t get caught out, or even worse end up under the wheels of someone’s car. For now a small set of flashers will do you just fine.

Bottle cage and bottle £20

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This doesn’t need to be fancy, just a way to transport water around as cycling is thirsty work. Some riders opt for a rucksack with a camelback which is better than nothing, but the rucksack will leave you sweating heavily and place extra stress on your shoulders. 

Cleaning products and lubricants £30

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A bicycle that is neglected will rust, seize up, make a racket when riding and eventually break. Keeping your bike clean and lubricated is incredibly important. You’ll need some bike cleaner, degreaser, sponges, brushes and a bottle of lubricant as a minimum.

Highly recommended

Cycling shorts and jersey £100

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Spending prolonged time on your bike without padded shorts will be… uncomfortable. Even with the shorts it takes time to build up a bit of resilience down there so these are not a purchase you will regret. A jersey is very useful for transporting essentials in the back pockets (food, pump, phone e.t.c.)

Rain cape: £50

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It will rain when you’re cycling, whether it’s forecast or not, and having a small packaway waterproof in your pocket will have you covered in these situations. 

Arm and leg warmers: £40

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Not 80s fashion accessories, these are arm and leg sleeves that keep you warm on chilly mornings or when the sun sets. Cheaper than buying a long sleeved jersey or tights, and more flexible as can be removed when the sun comes out. If you’re riding in properly cold weather you’ll want windproof clothing to keep the wind off your chest and tights for maximum warmth, but as not many people take up cycling in the dead of winter (chapeau if you are!), arm and leg warmers go a long way.

Eyewear £40

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You’ll want some glasses to keep the sun out of your eyes on bright days as well as to protect you from small stones and insects. There are options for persimmon lenses to brighten up an overcast day and clear lenses for night riding, or even photochromic lenses that adjust to conditions.

If we forego the recommended section, we’re looking at £340 for what are pretty essential purchases, and closer to £500 when we include the clothing we need to ride in comfort. This isn’t (normally) a salesperson trying to take you for a ride, they just want to make sure you can really enjoy the sport. If you’re really on a budget or looking to spread the cost you could pick up some flat pedals now and look into the shoes later, but a pair of flat pedals can be £20 in themselves, so if you have the money in your account it’s probably better to do it right first time. 

Where to buy the bike

One of the biggest factors to consider is where you buy your bike from. If you head somewhere where cycling isn’t the sole purpose of the business, the salesperson may have gone on a one day course on bike sales if you’re lucky, and their experience of riding bikes may extend to a visit to Center Parks where they pootled around a flat trail on mountain bikes. I really wouldn’t recommend going to one of these shops unless you take a friend who knows exactly what they’re looking for, as you could end up spending a lot of money on something completely unsuitable. 

Next on the pecking order is your cycling specific retailer, where they have a broader range of bikes and will go out of their way to order in the right bike in the right size for you, but might also be inclined to sell you a bike in the wrong size to get it off the shop floor. I bought my first bike from one of these, and the sizing process involved an argument between the manager and one of his staff over which size I should take. These outlets are well established enough to offer a reasonable level of advice, but too big to be flexible or guarantee a good level of service across their stores.

Finally you have your specialist retailers, the independent bike shops or very exclusive chains. I really recommend you shop here where possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, many are struggling to make ends meet and these shops provide an important role in our communities. If you need to pick something up quickly, the chances are your local bike shop is closer than the closest retail giant in an industrial estate but they can’t rely on sales of inner tubes and lubricants alone. They’re also great fountains of knowledge as the staff will tend to be experienced passionate cyclists who can help you make the right decisions, although this can come at a premium as they won’t always be as competitive as larger retail outlets having comparatively larger overheads for the volume they sell. However these are also the retailers most likely to swap the stem/handlebars for free, and fix the bike for free or a reduced rate if you take it back to them with an issue. That being said, some local bike shops are run by misogynistic middle aged men who look down on newcomers, or are so inflexible that they probably deserve to go out of business, but the quality local bike shop is an asset to both the sport and the community, deserving of our financial support. 

I’m writing this in what I hope is the second half of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is difficult to buy bikes from bricks and mortar establishments currently. Buying online isn’t the sin that some would have you believe it to be, however you run the risk of getting completely the wrong bike, in a colour that looks different in the flesh, which you’re not the right size for at all. If you’re planning to buy a bike online and use a local bike shop as a showroom, please don’t waste the salesperson’s time by playing a game of  99 questions.

I know that’s quite a lot to take in, but I hope it’s given you an insight into just how much thought needs to go into buying the right bike. To conclude, here are the biggest takeaway points:

  • A good quality aluminium or steel bike is better than a cheap carbon frame
  • Spending more money won’t make you quantifiably faster
  • Budget for accessories
  • Get a bike fit
  • Buy the bike which speaks to you
  • Bikes have very different geometries 
  • Make sure you’re buying a road bike
  • Shop at a store where staff can help you make informed decisions
  • Remember to buy pedals
  • Upgrade your tyres

I hope this has helped inform you of the common pitfalls that come with buying a bike. Once you have your bike and your event booked, why not check out our training plans?

Don’t Let Ironman Ruin Your Marriage

As someone once said to me, “Training for a sprint is a hobby, training for an Ironman is a lifestyle”, something many of us can relate to. You likely started out at sprint and Olympic distance where a long ride was three hours and you rarely ran for longer than an hour. However when taking on an Ironman, this just won’t cut it, and your longer workouts tend to dominate the day once you include the preparation, execution, recovery, cleaning/washing and the obligatory nap afterwards. 

All of this can take a strain on your relationships, which can leave your other half feeling neglected and overwhelmed with jobs such as looking after kids and food shopping which you can’t help with while you’re out putting in the miles. Training for an event like an Ironman will likely change the dynamic of your relationship, but there are some simple steps you can take to stop it being a change for the worse.

Choose your moment

If you’re moving house, expecting a new arrival, your workplace have announced redundancies or a family member is unwell, you have to ask yourself whether this is really the best time to engage in an expensive and time consuming challenge such as an Ironman. When you get closer to the race you may be out of the house for six hours at a time on your long ride, you may find yourself stressed if things aren’t going to plan and the physical exhaustion you’ll experience towards the end of the hard weeks can make the best of us come across as a bit short tempered and surly. The Ironman distance isn’t going anywhere, so don’t feel you have to cram it into an already stressful period in your life.

Make time for them

If you love someone the greatest gift you can give them is your presence, just to be around, even if it’s just sitting on the sofa watching a film together. Ironman training will reduce the time you can spend together, and your other half may take this personally if they believe you are growing tired or bored of their company. Even if you’re not able to spend as much time together as previously, making an effort to put time aside for them, and following up on this goes a long way. If you can’t spend an evening sat on the sofa browsing Netflix for five hours together, take them out to dinner for a couple of hours to make them feel special.

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Patrick Lange proves that Ironman can strengthen relationships as he pops the question after smashing the course record at the Ironman World Championships in 2018

Involve them in the process

If your partner is less than keen on your Ironman habit the best way you can turn it around is to involve them so they feel some ownership over the process. This doesn’t mean forcing them to train with you, but it can be something as simple as asking them to hold you accountable to your training plan, asking them which event you should enter or combining your training/racing with a family holiday. If your partner is a stickler for organisation, sharing your precise schedule with them, or inputting the times you plan to train into a shared calendar can help ease any anxieties about you disappearing at short notice.

Keep the sex life going

If you’ve already spent six hours sweating away on the bike in the morning, the thought of spending more time getting sweaty between the sheets can be less than appealing, especially for male athletes as prolonged aerobic exercise decreases levels of testosterone. While every couple has their own preferences on how regularly fornication should occur, it’s important not to let this slide too much when you start training. Your intimate sessions may be shorter than normal and you may have to adapt if you’re feeling truly exhausted, but leaving your partner to their own devices for several weeks or even months because you deem your training to be more important is unlikely to go down well. 

Keep perspective

Your training may mean the world to you at this point in time, but the saying goes that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. If you duck out of seeing your in laws for the sake of a big swim session or refuse to spend time with your sick children because you’re afraid you’ll catch a bug that will stop you training this can add up over time. No single session in your training plan will make or break your race, but the anxiety and stress of relationship problems that stem from being inflexible and selfish will have a far greater effect on your performance as not only will you struggle to keep a clear mind, those around you may remove their support for your quest and that run down the finishing chute will feel very lonely.

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Matt Russel crosses the finish line to find his family. Image copyright Ironman

Be transparent

Show them the Strava file from your run, show them the photo you and your friends took together at the top of the climb, maybe let them track you while you ride/run for safety purposes (most devices allow this), and just generally keep them up to date with what you’re doing. This will help ease any anxieties about where you’re spending your time and who you’re spending it with.

Pick up the slack on your rest day

Most athletes should be taking one day completely off a week. If you have a young family you should see this as an opportunity to pull your weight and pick up the slack; looking after your children to allow your partner some time to to socialise, relax or exercise themselves. Even if you don’t have children, this is a good opportunity to clean the bathroom, mow the lawn, do the dishes, fold the laundry, all jobs which you’ve probably let slide in favour of ploughing up and down the pool. This gives you the double header of a grateful spouse and a clean, organised environment to train and live in.

Look into home training solutions

In this day and age there are several solutions for training indoors; treadmills for running, smart trainers for cycling and endless pools for swimming. While some of these are more affordable than others, something affordable like a turbo trainer not only allows you to work in a very efficient way, it also allows you to be in the house waiting for that parcel, keeping an eye on the kids or allowing you to stay on standby if your other half is in bed feeling unwell. It’s often preferable to train outside, but sometimes this is unrealistic, and it’s better to take your ride/run indoors than to miss a session.

Go easy on the credit card

Yes, triathlon is an expensive sport, there’s no getting around that, but you really don’t need to spend £100 on titanium skewers, £700 on a wetsuit, £10,000 on a bike or £70 on a carbon fibre bottle cage. We all like toys, but there comes a point where you have to put the family budget first. It’s only a hobby at the end of the day and most of the equipment won’t actually make you that much faster. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you’re able to splash some cash, don’t be surprised if your other half wants a new set of golf clubs, a weekend skiing, or for you to finally get round to replacing the dated three piece suite. 

Be honest

If you spent more on your new bike than you said you would, fess up. If you’re going to be out for seven hours then don’t tell them you’ll be back for lunch. If you know you’ll be exhausted after your long run, don’t make plans you know you’ll probably have to cancel when you get home and collapse onto the sofa. Honesty is the cornerstone of any relationship and being flexible with the truth or hiding receipts from them is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. 

Talk problems over

If you can tell there’s a sense of resentment growing at the time/money you’re investing, rather than ignoring it, ask them what you can do to make things work better. This also gives you a chance to explain why you’re disappearing for six hours every Sunday (You need to get your long rides in to boost your aerobic capacity as part of your base training, these rides will become less frequent in the build phase which starts next month). If your partner vocalises concerns about how much you’re spending, explain your rationale behind your decisions and talk them through any more expenses that are due before the big day. By explaining the rationale behind your decisions you can help them understand why you’re making the decisions you are, and that there’s no ulterior motives. 

Successful relationships are all about give and take, and while training for an Ironman there’s a good chance you’ll be taking a lot more than you’re giving; making a few adjustments to time management and how you go about your training can help prevent any conflict.

I always take my client’s family life into account when setting training, arranging days off and hard workouts on days that suits them best. If you’re struggling to balance training and family life, head to our apply page to find out how we can help you successfully train for your event while keeping everyone on side.

Choosing a Triathlon Wetsuit

As we move into late spring the open water season is starting. Water temperatures are now in the double digits and the lakes/lidos are starting to open to the public. It is also the time of year when novice triathletes will look to purchase their first wetsuit, which can be a very daunting and confusing choice.

I spent two years working in triathlon retail where I fitted hundreds of customers into wetsuits, trying on different brands, different sizes, it can be a real trial to find the right wetsuit so I recommend doing this at a triathlon retailer if possible, to avoid sending wetsuits back and forth to online retailers. That being said, don’t treat the retailer as a fitting service then go and buy online, every retailer I know price match the online competitors.

I generally recommend against borrowing a friend’s wetsuit for a race, you wouldn’t borrow a friend’s pair of running shoes for a marathon, so why would you borrow a wetsuit? You’ve even got the knowledge that your friend has probably urinated in their wetsuit multiple times to seal the deal. If you’re unsure whether you’ll do a triathlon again (I’m 99% sure you will) then I recommend looking at hiring a wetsuit. The four times Ironman World Champsion Chrissie Wellington borrowed a friend’s wetsuit for one of her early races, when she started swimming the suit was too big and began to flood with water, requiring her to be rescued by a safety vessel. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone…

Some of you may be questioning why you need a wetsuit, there are a number of reasons you’ll find a wetsuit beneficial to your open water swimming:

Buoyancy

This is the big one for myself and many other athletes, it’s simply impossible to drown in a wetsuit. Try swimming under water and you’ll see what I mean! If you get yourself into trouble, simply roll into your back to catch your breath and relax, flagging down a safety vessel if required.

Warmth

Generally speaking triathletes are not cold water swimmers, this is compounded by the fact that we can be in the water for up to two hours which makes hypothermia a concern. A well-fitting swimming wetsuit keeps you warm by trapping a layer of cold water against the skin which then warms itself up to body temperature. The thickness of the wetsuit isn’t as important as it is for surfing wetsuits, sailing wetsuits or dry suits because of this, but a thicker wetsuit will keep you ever so slightly warmer, at the expense of flexibility (more on that later). If you really suffer in the cold like I do then consider investing in a wetsuit with heat reflective properties.

Hydrodynamics

Neoprene creates less drag in the water than skin, so putting on a wetsuit improves the distance you travel with each stroke, as the water encounters less resistance. The very best open water swimmers will swim faster in a wetsuit purely for this reason.

Price Point

Let’s be honest, the budget you have for your wetsuit is going to play a huge factor in your decision. Confusion can stem from the price points though, why are some suits £120 and some suits closer to £700? Here’s what you get for your money:

1. Quality of materials

We’re not simply talking about neoprene here, some suits like the Orca OpenWater suit are a mixture of neoprene and fabric, which does not stretch as well as neoprene and will provide less flexibility. Once you move up to top end suits, most will use different grades of Yamamoto neoprene which range from 39 cell to 41 with cell counts providing more flexibility. The freedom you experience in a top end suit can’t be understated.

2. Thickness of Neoprene

This is somewhat counterintuitive, but the thinner wetsuits are more expensive. The thicker the neoprene the more buoyancy it provides, but the less flexible it is. As a result many top of the range suits will have thin neoprene (sometimes 0.75mm) in the shoulders and 5mm on the legs to ensure that weaker swimmers get a better body position. Some suits are thin all over and designed for the total swimmer who does not want the extra buoyancy, such as the Orca Predator or the HUUB 4:4 suits. When we talk about less buoyancy in these suits, you won’t find yourself in any danger of sinking, but your legs won’t float on the surface in the same way.

3. Lining

It seems trivial, but the quality of lining in a wetsuit can make for a more comfortable swim with less chance of chafing, as well as being easier to remove.

4. Buoyancy Foam

No, I’m not joking, many wetsuit manufacturers have started incorporating foam into the legs of their wetsuits to lift an athlete’s legs up even higher in the water. This can be especially appealing for newer swimmers, or those who struggle to build an efficient leg kick in the water due to stiffness in their ankles or heavy, muscular legs.

5. Heat Retention

Some long distance specific suits such as the Zone 3 Victory D have coatings or panels designed to reflect lost body heat back to the wearer. This can be a real game changer for lightweight athletes such as myself who struggle in low temperatures, either due to body composition or lack of cold water acclimatisation.

6. Marginal Gains

From the breakaway zipper to catch panels and fabric areas on the forearm to help you feel the water better, top end suits will have all sorts of little technological developments in them that will make very little, if any difference to your swim. Triathlon wetsuits have turned into something of an arms race with each manufacturer pouring tens, if not hundreds of thousands into R&D to get the edge on competitors. My advice is not to get caught up in these details and focus instead on the suit that offers the best range of movement.

If you’re new to open water swimming I would actually advise against dropping too much on your first wetsuit, as you’ll no doubt end up putting your fingernail through it a few times, and you don’t know how well you’ll take to the sport. Most people will develop a lifelong love for it, but I’d hate for you to go over budget on a suit that you end up using less than a dozen times. By starting with something at a more sensible price point, when you upgrade further down the line it gives you one suit for training and one for racing.

Finding the Correct Fit

This is the most important bit to get right, the world’s most advanced wetsuit will not help you if it doesn’t fit, and you’ll be left either gasping for breath in a wetsuit that’s too small or slowly sinking in a wetsuit that is too large.

I cannot recommend going to a bricks and mortar triathlon retailer for a wetsuit strongly enough. Not only does it allow you to try numerous suits and brands on, it also allows for you to try different suits on back to back. You don’t want to have to be forced to buy a wetsuit that doesn’t fit because you don’t have time to return it before race day. I’m going to take you through how to put a wetsuit on properly as well as what to look for in a good fit.

To start with remove everything except your swimwear/trisuit and put on a pair of light gloves to avoid damaging the wetsuit. Some use the gloves before every swim, which I find slightly excessive, but it’s definitely worth doing when putting a suit on for the first time.

Unzip the wetsuit and step into it with the zip at the back. It will take a bit of wriggling to get your feet through, this is fine, if your leg goes in too easily it can be a sign that the suit is too big. If you’re having trouble here, try putting your foot in a plastic bag to reduce friction and avoid the possibility of your toenail going through the lovely box-fresh wetsuit.

Now your feet are sticking out of the bottom you need to lift the cuffs so they’re at the bottom of your calf muscle, rather than sitting on your ankle. The reason for this is we want as much flexibility in the shoulders as possible, we do this by moving all the material as far up the body as we reasonably can.

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Cuffs too close to ankle
Good Ankles
Correct suit height

 

From here we pull the material from our lower body up towards our chest until everything is nice and tight downstairs, we don’t want any gaps between the suit and our skin or any rolls of neoprene

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Grab handfuls of material and move it towards your shoulders

Next up place your arms through each of the sleeves- which will again be a bit of a struggle. Once your hands have made it through the sleeves it’s time to bring more material up from the chest towards the shoulders, without doing this it may be difficult to do the zip up. Again, this follows the theme of moving any slack material up towards the shoulders. Below you can see a before and after of moving the slack from their legs, body and arms towards their shoulders.

 

By now you’ll be looking like an open water swimmer, whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate! Next up is the zip itself. I highly recommend getting someone else to zip you up, as there’s less chance of the zip coming off in your hand this way, nobody wants to be stood at the swim start with their zipper on the floor and a cord in their hand.

Next up are a two more tests to ensure that the wetsuit fits, the first is to lift your arm straight above your head. Were you able to move it with very little resistance? Is the neoprene flush with your armpit in this position? If the answer is no, then you need to move more material towards the shoulders, this can be from the arms, chest or legs; grab some and move it towards your chest. You may be worried at this point about the cuffs moving further and further away from your hands/feet, this is not a problem at all and common in taller athletes. What’s far more important is that your arms have freedom of movement and your chest is not compressed.

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Here the wetsuit is so taught it is restricting the swimmer from lifting their arm above their head. It’s difficult to make out from the photo, but there is 4-5 inches between the suit and armpit
Good Armpit
Here the material has been worked from the wrist towards the shoulders, allowing for a snug fit with the neoprene flush to the armpit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those with a stockier build may end up with excess material bunched around the legs and arms. This can be solved with a pair of scissors, cutting the cuff back by an inch or two. Many of you will gasp at horror at the thought of this, how could you take a pair of scissors to your brand new investment? Well, manufacturers have actually accommodated for this and, along the seam on the inside of the arm/leg cuffs of all wetsuits I’ve seen, you’ll find a piece of black tape running over the seam. You can cut the suit short up to this piece of tape without invalidating the warranty of the suit in most cases. It may be worth checking with the manufacturer before you do this just in case they have a different policy.

Assuming the arms are correct the next thing you want to check for is the small of the back, get somebody to see if they can grab a handful of neoprene, if they can the suit may be too large for you. Finally bend over at 90 degrees and get someone to check if an opening appears at the nape of your neck. If you have a large opening at the nape of your neck and a large space in the small of your back the chances are water will gush down from here and start filling your suit with large amounts of water, not ideal as it prevents the water inside the suit from warming up to body temperature.

As you will have noticed, this list is quite extensive, with lots of caveats and to make things even more difficult, you only truly know if a wetsuit fits you when you take it for its first swim. The chances are there will be a compromise in some aspect of the fit. I have a space in the small of my back due to the curvature of my spine despite wearing the smallest size available. Some people’s suits will have a neckline slightly higher than they’d like, others will find the ankles so tight it’s a fight to get it off every time. Do not feel that you have to tick every single box, as a wetsuit may not exist that works perfectly for you. As long as you have freedom of movement in your upper body, this is the single most important thing.

You can help yourself out here by picking the right brand for you as they all have a slightly different fit. Please note that the following is incredibly general, based purely on my opinion/experiences and about as unscientific as it gets, but it may help you save yourself going back and forth with different wetsuits. I’ll break it down brand by brand with the kind of swimmers the suits tend to suit. Listed in alphabetical order to avoid giving any brand preference.

BlueSeventy- These suit taller, slimmer swimmers as they have a higher neckline which tends to press into the Adam’s apple on shorter swimmers. The Helix is an incredibly popular suit.

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Huub- A more generous fit than other suits, a popular choice with swimmers who come from a less athletic background. Large amounts of buoyancy in the legs of most of their models help those with sink legs. Many women find the fit of their suits better suited to the female figure than other manufacturers.

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Orca- Popular with pool swimmers who tend to be blessed with broad shoulders, they also have the lowest neckline of any suit I’ve worn, I sold a lot of these suits to those who just couldn’t get on with other manufacturers.

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Zone3- These suits are the closest I have ever found to an all round fit, if someone walked through the door with a general athletic figure I would normally steer them in the direction of the Zone 3 suits. The Aspire is probably the most popular triathlon wetsuit out there.

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2XU- I don’t have a huge amount of experience with this brand, but you can’t do a shakedown of wetsuit manufacturers without including 2XU. These suits tend to fit taller, more athletic figures than other brands.

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Zoot- I have not found their wetsuits to fit many people especially well, with the majority of people who tried the suits on encountering chafing under the arms. This was a couple of years ago now, so these issues may have since been addressed.

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Other brands
This is a list of the big players in the swimming wetsuit market, but that’s not to say they’re the only manufacturers. There are brands such as Sailfish, Roka and DHB, who whilst not quite as prevalent as the others in the UK, does not mean they are necessarily inferior suits. I personally have very little knowledge or experience of these suits so have decided not to cover them here as I don’t know enough about them, but they’re certainly worth checking out if you have the ability to try them on. Brands such as Gul, RipCurl and O’neil should be avoided however as they are surfing wetsuits and this means that not only will they come with a huge amount of restriction in the shoulders, they may well have panels of over 5mm which is against the regulations of every race series/governing body I have come across.

To conclude, here are some final bullet points:

  • It’s all about the fit, it’s better to have a cheaper, well fitting suit than a top end suit that chokes you or chafes.
  • Try to visit a triathlon retailer if you can. If you have to buy online it’s best to order a small selection of suits and return the ones that don’t fit.
  • Always take great care when trying on suits, if you put a hole through it while trying it on, the decision on which suit you’re buying will be made for you.
  • Go for the the snuggest fit you can that doesn’t restrict movement or breathing. Remember it will relax slightly in the water.
  • Always get someone else to zip you up, as I said earlier you don’t want the zipper to break off in your hand on race morning! Don’t be put off suits that require someone to help you zip up, as you should never be swimming in open water alone anyway.
  • Try on different brands, don’t just settle for the first one the salesperson brings out. I always used to allow 30 minutes for a wetsuit sale.
  • Don’t be temped by an ill fitting bargain, even if you’re only planning to use it once, you can always sell it onto someone else.

Finally; the swim causes so much anxiety in athletes that you don’t need an ill fitting suit to add to the stress on the day. If you’re anxious about getting started in open water why not join one of our coached sessions at Shepperton Open Water? Secure your place here: Open Water Swimming

 

The Benefits of Coaching

A good triathlon coach is far more than someone who tells you what to do, it is someone who shares with your journey with you. While every coach is different, I’m going to take the time to talk through what I believe makes a good coach, and the relationships I foster with my athletes.

Coached Sessions
Starting with the most obvious one here, when I tell people I’m a triathlon coach their mind normally jumps to an image of me stood at the side of a pool with a stopwatch or cheering on runners as they sprint round a running track. This is a small but nonetheless important aspect of the coaching I provide, using my expert eye and knowledge of swim, bike and run to provide feedback on an athlete’s form, providing encouragement to help them push themselves hard.

If you are new to triathlon the chances are that you struggle with the swim, whether this is frustration at not being able to get your times where you want them to be or breaking out in a cold sweat at the very thought of open water swimming. This is where many people find the most value in 1to1 coaching, whether it is a coach stood on poolside providing feedback on your technique or someone to help squeeze you into your wetsuit and be there as you take your first step into the water, expert instruction from a coach can help you improve rapidly and ease anxieties.

Flexible Training Pans
There are hundreds of Training Plans available for free or for much less than the cost of a coach, but the value of working with a coach comes from working with someone who understands your lifestyle, strengths, weaknesses, available time, history of injury, equipment available and much more. After filling out a questionnaire and from ongoing conversations a coach will help create a training plan that suits you, and adjust it on the fly for you.

Yesterday one of my athletes contacted me with some bad news from his GP, that he had picked up an eye infection and was unable to swim for a week. Within 10 minutes I had updated his training plan to replace his swim sessions, talked to him about how we can prevent it happening in future and reassured him that the effect on his fitness would be minimal. If he was following a standard training plan he may replace the swims with inappropriate sessions or even worse push through the eye infection for fear of what might happen if he misses a session.

I always deliver training plans on a week by week basis, writing them late in the week so I can get a picture of how the preceding week of training has gone. If their pool was closed for refurbishment I know we have to prioritise swimming in the following week, if they have picked up a cold I know they need to take it easy, or if they have received guidance from a physiotherapist I need to implement this into the next week of training. A training plan should be organic and ever changing to take into account the fact that no-one has the perfect run up to an event, and that sometimes life gets in the way.

Someone to turn to
While very few triathlon coaches will hold any kind of qualification in psychology, I’ve spent countless hours on the phone to athletes in floods of tears or who are on the verge of giving up. Whether this is because they have crashed their bike days before an important event, are suffering from stress in their family/professional life or they are simply having a crisis of confidence, coaches can help pick you up, brush you down and set you back on track.

A lot of emotion flies around athletes training for triathlons, the ecstasy of finishing your event, the frustration of injury, the relief at qualifying for your target race, the self doubt that even the world’s greatest athletes suffer with, your training can become a rollercoaster of emotion. When things start to add up and become a bit too much, having a coach you feel comfortable venting to and who provides a shoulder to cry on helps you process these emotions and prevents you from allowing them to cloud your judgement when making important decisions.

Objective advice
Sometimes it’s unavoidable that your judgement becomes distorted, triathletes are extremely driven people who are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal. This determination is admirable and one of the qualities I look for in potential clients, but this can also create tunnel vision. Our family, our health and even our sense of reason can fall by the wayside as an athlete gets up at 4AM even though they’re suffering with the early stages of a chest infection to start pounding the pavement for fear of missing a session and losing fitness.

No doubt their friends and family would be alarmed at this and ask them to back off, but knowing athletes as I do, these concerns would likely be batted away with phrases along the lines of “You don’t understand” or “I’m not sure you realise how much this means to me”. This is the point where a coach can step forward as the voice of reason and tell the athlete what they may not want to hear, that we need to take some time off to allow the chest infection to clear before it gets worse.

The self coached athlete is so focused on his goals and so determined to hit them that sometimes they get it wrong, putting a hard interval session in on only 4 hours sleep then spending the rest of the month laid up losing fitness hand over first as his full blown chest infection prevents him from getting any sessions in. “What an idiot, what was I thinking?” the athlete asks himself with the beauty of hindsight. There are only so many of these mistakes you can afford in a season, and the coach’s ability to remove the majority of the emotion from these decisions can help you avoid these common pitfalls.

This extends beyond training with injury/illness, in the past I have given an athlete a day off on a Sunday simply so he can spend more time with his family or given them an unscheduled easy week because I can see things are starting to take their toll on them.

Data Analysis
As athletes we don’t necessarily need to understand the finer points of critical power or be able to analyse the duty factor of a run; if you have a data savvy coach they can take care of all of this for you and feed back any adverse findings to you.

Data can be confusing for many who simply don’t have the time or inclination to learn about the definitions of every data point and analyse them after each workout, a coach helps you sort the wheat from the chaff, condensing a confusing and complicated set of numbers into a simple question along the lines of “I noticed your heart rate was a lot higher in the second half of this, can you think of any reason why this might be?”. Using questioning and referring to the data can help me differentiate between a data anomaly and something physiologically which may be a cause for concern and require us to change our approach.

Education
While a good coach can help simplify your training to help you keep your eyes on what matters, I believe they should also spend time developing athletes by explaining to them the logic and reasoning behind their decisions. I can ask an athlete to head out and ride for 2 hours aiming for an IF of 0.7 but to them this may just be an arbitrary number and mean very little to them, If I explain to them that Intensity Factor is a measure of how intense the workout is calculated using their threshold, they can then understand that holding an IF of 0.7 means averaging 70% of FTP and they will hopefully find themselves motivated by this, understanding what is required to hit that number.

Different athletes will have different needs here, for some of them it will be showing them how to change a puncture, put on their wetsuit or lay out their transition area, where for others it’s a case of helping them analyse their own power files, choose the right aero helmet or talking through muscle physiology. I wouldn’t be the first coach to joke that a big part of our job is to make ourselves redundant.

Technical Support
If your Garmin isn’t picking up your sensor, you can’t get your avatar to move on Zwift or you’re unsure how to sync your device to TrainingPeaks, a coach can talk you through the process in a more efficient way than via technical support. Many new clients ask me to come around and setup their turbo for them, something I’m happy to assist with as it makes the training process easier for both of us.

Of course we have our limits, we won’t turn up with a set of jewellery screwdrivers to repair your turbo trainer if it burns out completely, but we can be on the end of the phone to talk you through the common pitfalls to hopefully get you up and running sooner.

Advice on Products
Two years in triathlon retail has helped make this one of my stronger elements, but all coaches will have a basic knowledge of the correct products their athletes should be using. This varies from recommending the best indoor trainer, triathlon watch or aero helmet based on technical data and experiences, but also extends to recommending the best clothing for an athlete based on their build.

Perhaps most importantly, out knowledge of sports science helps us spot products with very little or poor evidence behind them, and we can advise against sinking your hard earned cash into products that will have very little, or negligible benefit to your performance. Everybody needs the right kit to perform well, but dropping £2000 on a pair of wheels that may save you 30 seconds over an Ironman bike split ahead of your first race probably isn’t the best use of your money.

Event Insight
With hundreds of triathlons across the globe, choosing the right race for you can be extremely difficult. There are numerous factors to take into account such as type of swim, course profile, surface of the run course, transport links, entry fees, the list goes on. While many athletes already come to me with a target event in mind, I will advise on appropriate warm up races, and perhaps suggest target events for them in future years.

As coaches we will have raced in the majority of local races, and visited the rest as a spectator. As a result we can provide feedback on tricky sections of the course, the best place to get a pre race meal the night before, the prime viewing spots for your family and other bits of information you won’t find in your race pack.

Support
No matter how motivated you are, no matter what your splits look like or how well your prep is going, we all need a pick me up every now and then. Sometimes this is in the form of a supportive comment on TrainingPeaks, sometimes it’s being there on the sidelines cheering you along as you tear up the course, a coach can pick you up when things are getting tough and keep you going. This can also extend to data driven encouragement, if one of my athletes feels they are not making any progress I can open up WKO and pull up a chart that shows them how far they’ve come, how close we are to our goal or how they’ve improved their efficiency, even if their times or power figures haven’t changed as much as they’d like. 

Different things motivate different athletes, and by getting to know you over many months/years a good coach knows what to say at the right moment to keep you going when the times get tough. Self talk is a very important part of sporting psychology, but we all need a pick me up from a figure we respect every now and then.

Accountability
One of the biggest appeals of coaching for many people is the knowledge of having someone who is reviewing their data and who will pull them up on missed sessions, intervals off target and workouts that miss the objective of the session. The knowledge that someone is going to questions why you missed a workout is often the motivation that people need to head to the pool rather than sit on the sofa.

This is not to say that we will bathe you in a sea of fire, threatening to kick you off the squad if you miss a single session, but we will start asking questions if we see numerous sessions are being skipped, and work with you to figure out out how we can prevent this happening in future. 

Injury triage
Most coaches do not hold any medical qualifications but if you are experiencing pain or tightness we are well placed to refer you to the best person to help. Triathlon coaches have a working knowledge of the most common sports injuries and can advise on the best way to manage these before you see a specialist, or whether you need to stop running immediately. Good communication is key here, with the athlete informing the coach of any abnormalities as soon as they appear. Most running injuries can be successfully managed we act quickly, and a coach’s expertise can ensure this happens quickly without aggravating the injury further.

Physiotherapists are normally best placed to advise you on treating the causes of running injuries, as this is what they spend the vast majority of their time correcting, but shoulder injuries in swimming are normally caused by poor technique, which as triathlon coaches we are well placed to correct.

Camaraderie
I only take on clients who I believe I can foster some kind of friendship with. While I don’t expect them to invite me to the hospital to meet their newborn child, I want to ensure we have a good working relationship, allowing us to crack a few jokes between us and speak freely without worrying about formalities.

It makes discussing difficult subjects easier, if I know an athlete well I can better discuss with them prickly subjects such as whether their training has affected their periods, changes in mood, bowel functions and other subjects you probably don’t feel comfortable discussing with a relative stranger. Most importantly it makes the journey a more positive and enjoyable experience for both parties. 

 

A recent survey by TrainingPeaks suggested that around 90% of athletes believe they would improve from working with a coach, and 90% of those working with a coach are satisfied with the service they receive, so if you are on the fence about hiring a coach, why not try it for a few months and see where it takes you?

Where is the Best Place to Invest in Triathlon?

Image copyright AMC

The products that promise to make you faster in triathlon are literally endless, every trade show or press release that comes my way promises free speed for a price. Whether this is in the form of miracle nutrition supplements, super aero bike components, advanced cycle clothing or running specific underwear, they all claim to be great value for money, and promise to solve all of your problems. Having worked in triathlon retail for two years I have helped hundreds of triathletes put together the right package for them and their budget, so I wanted to share with you the advice I have picked up and shared with customers over the years. Obviously I can’t cover every single piece of equipment, but I’ll do my best to cover the most common purchases.

It’s worth mentioning that for each item listed there are cheaper options as well as more expensive options available. Just because something isn’t listed as good value doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it, I’m the proud owner of many of the items that I list here as being poor value, however for the new athlete there are a other purchases which should come first and will offer your more bang for your buck.

Good Value

Power meter

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Stages Cycling 105 5800 Left Crank Arm (RRP 449.99)

Probably the single best investment you can make in your fitness, especially if you are working with a coach who can use the data to monitor your fitness closely. The power meter not only records data, but displays it as you ride to help you pace your rides effectively. Heart rate also helps with this but as it’s so easily affected by other factors such as fatigue, illness and stress,  power is useful as an absolute measurement of what’s coming out of your legs. The savvy athlete/coach closely monitors the relationship between heart rate and power to track fitness and fatigue.

Heart Rate Monitor

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Wahoo Tickr, RRP £39.99

If you can’t afford a power meter then a heart rate monitor is the next best way to monitor your effort levels. A chest strap gives you much more accurate readings than the optical heart rate monitors found on newer triathlon watches, so are recommended for serious training.

High Quality Clothing

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Castelli Evoluzione Bibshort (RRP £80)

Invest in high quality clothing which will keep you warm and comfortable when riding and racing. Cheap clothing is a false economy as it will be uncomfortable resulting in unenjoyable training, chafing and it will likely fall apart quickly.

Tools 

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X Tools 18 piece set (RRP £39.99)

This covers all bike maintenance tools, chain lubes, grease e.t.c. If you learn to fix your bike yourself this will give you confidence and save you lots of money on workshop labour fees. High quality tools are important if you plan to do a lot of work on your bike, but there is no need to spend money on workshop quality tools if you are occasionally tinkering with your own machine.

Elastic Laces 

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Xtenex Elastic Laces (RRP £9)

There’s no excuse for this one, these will save you lots of time in transition and allow you to get running sooner. Tying laces with cold hands after a chilly ride is near impossible, a problem solved with a £5 pair of elastic laces.

Good Quality Goggles 

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Aqua Sphere Kayenne Goggles With Polarise Lenses (RRP £30.00)

Swimming isn’t much fun if you can’t see where you’re going, you’re blinded by the sun or your goggles keep taking on water. A good pair of open water goggles can be picked up for cheap and will provide you with a far more enjoyable experience in the water. All goggles have a shelf life, so treat yourself to a new pair ahead of race day.

 

Dumb Turbo Trainer

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Tacx Blue Matic Turbo Trainer (RRP £139.00)

Is the weather too cold to conclusive riding? Too windy? Not enough time? Throw your leg over a turbo trainer and get a good quality workout in from the comfort of your garage. The fitness you will gain from getting rides in when you’d otherwise be forced off of the bike results in enormous gains in fitness.

Coaching 

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Coaching can be in the form of monthly training plans, or coached sessions such as an introduction to open water swimming (above)

 

Some people struggle with the concept of paying for coaching as they want to walk away from a transaction with something carbon fibre in their hands. But when you consider a year of coaching with Phazon Triathlon costs less than a rear wheel, the expert guidance and support you will receive from a coach will help shave hours, not minutes off of your finish time.

Premium Tyres

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Continental GP400S II Tyre (RRP £60)

As covered in a recent article, a good set of tyres will help prevent punctures, provide extra grip and reduce rolling resistance. Because nobody likes to end up in a ditch or standing by the side of the road trying to wrestle a tyre off the rim as other stream past.

Appropriate Running Shoes 

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On Running Cloudflow Running Shoes (RRP £120)

A pair of running shoes that fit you well, are comfortable and not too worn are essential to your performance ,by running in ill fitting and/or worn running shoes you vastly increase your risk of injury. You also need to ensure the shoes you wear are suitable for he distances you’re running and the terrain you’ll be running on.

Swim Toys 

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Speedo Power Paddles (RRP £13)

 

Investing in a modest collection of swim toys (pull buoy, fins, paddles, tempo trainer e.t.c.) will vastly improve your swim if used correctly, shop around and you’ll find some good deals going.

Clip On Aero Bars

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Token TK9741-2 Aero Clip On Bars (RRP 39.00)

Using a set of clip on bars can save you time hand over fist by lowering and narrowing your position on the bike. It’s very difficult to get a comfortable position on a road bike with clip on bars, but the good news is you’ll be able to revert to the hoods if they prove to be too uncomfortable.

Sports Massage/Physiotherapy 

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If you feel niggles or tightness appear from training, be sure to get them seen to by a professional. Sports masseurs can help you treat the symptoms of the pain and advise on the potential cause, but sometimes it takes a full screening with a physiotherapist is essential to address the cause of the injury.

Bike Fit 

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Sigma Sports Bike Fitter James Thomas (image copyright Sigma Sports)

Ride your bike in more comfort and produce more power. It doesn’t take an awful lot, just a high quality bike fit. The free fittings that shops provide aren’t worth much at all, make sure you visit a bike fitting specialist who uses their experience and knowledge of biomechanics rather than relying on technology

Triathlon Watch 

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Garmin Forerunner 935 GPS Watch (RRP £470)

With smartphone apps that record your rides and runs for you, the real benefit of a triathlon watch is for recording swims, talking to ANT+ sensors and keeping an eye on your pace as you run or your metrics as you cycle. If you are following a training plan, a triathlon watch becomes an essential for following workouts.

Mid value

Hydration Systems

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Profile Design FC25 Hydration System (RRP £75.00)

The ability to lean forwards and take a drink saves you a lot of time and effort, reaching behind your saddle or to your downtube every time you need a drink is feels cumbersome after using one of these. Most come with a mount for a GPS computer as well which solves the tricky issue of attaching computers to aero bars.

Premium Tri Suit (£150)

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Huub Dave Scott Long Course Trisuit (RRP £190)

A more expensive tri suit will provide aerodynamic gains and dry quicker, but these are both luxuries, and for longer events many people will drop the tri suit in favour of sports specific kit anyway. The most important factor is one you feel comfortable in. If the difference between a well fitting or ill fitting suit is £50, then splash the cash. You won’t regret it on race day.

Clip In Pedals 

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Shimano 105 5800 Carbon SPD Pedals (RRP 99.00)

The words that strike fear into the hearts of many, this system allows you to put power down quickly and also increases the power you gain on the upstroke, especially on the hills. They also keep your feet locked into a (hopefully) efficient position reducing the risk of injuries.

High End Bike Shoes 

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Specialized S-Works Trivent Tri Shoes (RRP £275)

This assumes your existing shoes provide relative comfort. Upgrading into a more lightweight shoe with a stiffer sole will increase performance, especially over longer distances. If your current shoes are ill fitting then a new pair of shoes are very important.

Aero Helmet

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Lazer Wasp Air Triathlon Helmet (RRP £349.00)

A good aero helmet will save you a lot of energy, sometimes as much as a set of aero race wheels. Spend your time trying on different brands until you find one which fits like a glove and is appropriately ventilated for the conditions you’re racing in. Taking a helmet with no vents to Lanzarote is just asking for trouble.

Poor value

Triathlon Bike

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Cervelo P3 Ultegra Di2 (RRP £4,299.00)

I’m a big believer in triathlon bikes, the additional comfort they provide and access to gear shifters from the aero bars save you a lot of time, but you could buy a decent car for the same cash. I recommend people get a couple of seasons under their belt on a road bike before they take the leap and upgrade to a TT machine.

Smart Trainers 

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Wahoo Kickr (RRP £999.00)

I love my smart trainer, but if you already own a basic turbo trainer, you will be paying a lot of money for luxuries such as ERG mode and variable resistance. If you’re buying your first turbo trainer and have the money to spend, absolutely go for a smart trainer, but if you’re already running a dumb trainer, look at items further up the list before you upgrade to a smart trainer.

Deep Section Wheels 

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Lightweight Fernweg Clincher Wheelset (RRP £5,549.00)

Not quite as essential as some people would have you believe, a nice set of wheels will save you a lot of time, but you need to be going quite fast to get the most out of them. If you’re new to triathlon you’ll barely be able to get up to speed to make the most out of them, and the weight penalty may offset the aero benefit. Save these for when your times start to plateau.

High End Wetsuit

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Orca Predator Fullsleeve Wetsuit (RRP 649.00)

Upgrading to a top end wetsuit is a lot of money for not a lot of benefit. It will be more flexible, and *slightly* more hydrodynamic, but simply putting on a more expensive wetsuit won’t help your technique. If you struggle in the swim, that money is better spent on swimming tuition. When you start knocking on the door of the top 20% in the swim, that is the time to start looking at performance wetsuits.

Components 

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The Brand New Shimano 105 R7000 Groupset (RRP varies)

High end components sure look good, and yes they’re marginally lighter but on TT bikes components are the last thing we should be worrying about as once you get to Shimano 105 level, the only tangible benefit beyond this point is weight saving, and bike weight is the last of our concerns for most triathlons. The best time to upgrade your groupset is when your current one wears out, as they’re very expensive to purchase as a standalone item.

Sports Specific Nutrition

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PowerBar Energize Bars (RRP 1.50)

Buying specially branded energy gels and energy bars only really provide you with a convenience. An energy bar is nothing you can’t make in the kitchen yourself and many people choose jelly babies over energy gels anyway. If you find that these products really hit the spot for you and you can’t imagine yourself racing without them then by all means stock up, but the costs can add up very quickly.

GPS Bike Computer 

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Garmin Edge 820 (RRP £370)

GPS head units such as Garmin Edge or Wahoo ELEMNT units are great for cyclists as they provide routes you can follow, display your data clearly as you ride, and can even be used in conjunction with your smart trainer. However this provides very few functions that a high end triathlon watch can’t, so this falls down the list.

 

You may have noticed a pattern here, items which improve your fitness and comfort are high on the list, where equipment based purely on race day speed lower on the list. Investing in yourself is far more important than investing in your bike. Yes top end bikes are sexy, but at the end of the day it’s what’s in your legs that matter, and the ability to put out big watts far outweighs aero/weight.

Blagger’s Guide to Race Nutrition

Image credit Nils Nilsen

Nutrition is the single most complex issue in long course triathlon, and the most subjective from individual to individual. While less of a concern for the sprint and Olympic distances, by the time you look at half Iron and Iron distance events it can be the difference between finishing strong and not making it off of the bike. Many marathon runners talk about “Hitting the wall”, a point in the race where you are suddenly blindsided and unable to walk. In triathlon we normally refer to this as bonking (pipe down at the back), but by the time you reach this stage you’ve already made a mistake by letting your energy reserves become depleted. The bad news is that you can’t simply “push through” the wall, your body is literally empty and will start breaking down muscle fibre in search of energy. The good news is that it’s completely avoidable with the right fuelling strategy.

During any event over 90 minutes you need to take on extra calories to maintain performance, let’s take an Ironman as an example. We normally start around 6:30AM, and most people are on the bike by 8:30AM when your body is already expecting the calories from Breakfast. We need to keep topping up our energy stores throughout the day, and the only way we can do this is by taking on calories in a way that won’t upset our stomach. If we pull over to enjoy a Sunday roast halfway through the bike and then jump back on our trusty steed to put out 200W our stomach will be less than cooperative. We need to find a way to take on calories in a consistent and measured manner that is easy for our digestive system to process.

Fuelling slows us down, that much we can’t deny, and when you’re feeling strong tearing up the bike course, you don’t want to slow down by reaching into your back pocket/bento box to extract and unwrap our fuel source of choice. Our heart says to keep pressing on, but our head tells us to be smart and take on food, guess which one we should listen to?

There are various different ways to take on calories, each with their pros and cons which we’ll look at here:

Gels

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A sweet semi solid substance that you slurp up, these provide a (nearly) instant injection of energy, breathing life back into tired muscles. If you’re wobbling all over the road and shaking, nothing will get you back in the game quite like an energy gel, it achieves this by containing very simple sugars that are easily absorbed. However as soon as you start to get back in your rhythm you will start to crash again as they quite simply put you on a sugar high, followed by a predictable crash. I wouldn’t want to fuel any event longer than an Olympic triathlon solely on energy gels, something that releases energy in a slower, more sustainable manner is essential for success at middle and long distance.

Pros: Easy to digest, give you an instant boost

Cons: Can be sickly, some require water to wash down, only give a short term pick up

Energy Bars

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All nutrition manufacturers will have their patented energy bars, these vary from brand to brand but are generally oat based, very dense and energy rich. These are a much more sustainable way of replacing depleted energy stores than energy gels, and are a much more natural way of taking on energy which will appeal to many simply out of principal. The oats will release energy slowly, and the bonding agent is normally sugary, as a result these can still be fairly sweet and are normally very chewy. This is all well and good if you’re rolling along at 70% of FTP chatting to friends, but I’ll never forget the time I came across a 20% gradient in Yorkshire with a mouth full of an apple and blackberry energy bar.

Pros: Sustainable energy release, individually wrapped for easy transportation

Cons: Can be very expensive, difficult to chew, still quite sweet

Real Food

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Image Copyright Tesco

As time goes by and I see past the marketing that brands push, I have found myself moving towards real food over branded energy products. This is a personal choice as I have very low fat reserves so my nutritional demands are quite unique, but I find myself craving something substantial to line my stomach, items such as pistachio cookies, crisps and ginger cake to keep my stomach from turning itself over and protect against stitches and cramps. This is also the cheapest way to fuel yourself, a batch of homemade flapjacks will cost far less than half a dozen branded energy bars and allows you to control the texture, sweetness and portion size to taste.

Pros: cheap, more satisfying, enormous variety

Cons: Can be difficult to transport, preparation time for homemade food

Sports Drinks

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I use this as an umbrella term to cover various branded products that contain carbohydrate in the form of sugars and electrolytes to replace lost salt. This is a fuel source favoured by many long distance athletes due to its easy consumption and transportation, some (very successful) athletes even manage a diet of nothing but sports drink and energy gels. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse but we’re all individuals and need to find what works for us.

Pros: Very easy to digest, take on fluids and calories at once, less likely to neglect hydration

Cons: Has to be mixed (difficult mid race), slow absorption into bloodstream, easy to take on too many calories.

It’s worth mentioning here the role that course nutrition plays, for most middle and long distance races fuel stations will be provided for athletes to get a drink and something to eat. I encourage my athletes not to rely too heavily on these stations and to be as self sufficient as possible, it’s not unheard of for feed stations to run dry, and the products there may not be to your liking. Aim to be self sufficient, but do your research on the nutrition that will be available at the feed stations, the brand and the products they will be stocking, if this information isn’t available on the race website, E-mail the organiser and ask. If they are only carrying peanut and vanilla Powerbars, then buy some and try them while training, if you find one of them really upsets you, then you know to avoid it on race day. Many races will also provide you with a special needs bag at the halfway point, make use of this and ensure you have enough nutrition in there to comfortably get you to the end of the race, just in case you previously hit a pothole and jettisoned all of your nutrition in the process.

Electrolytes

Electrolytes is simply a fancy sounding word for salt, but if they tried to sell salt tablets they’d probably sell an awful lot less. As I alluded to earlier, replacing salt is critical for endurance athletes, especially if you’re a heavy sweater, we work with all of our athletes to create a bespoke hydration plan to improve performance and avoid a potentially fatal condition known as hyponatremia where the blood becomes so diluted that it starts to affect brain function. Luckily getting your electrolyte balance right is a lot simpler than food, and there are four ways to keep yourself topped up.

Sports Drinks

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Yes, sports drinks again. The vast majority of sports drinks will include electrolytes required for peak performance without having to worry about taking on extra supplements. If unsure, check the ingredients and look for potassium, sodium and/or chloride.

Electrolyte Tablets

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There is such a thing as too many calories (more on that later), so electrolyte tablets in water allows us to keep our levels topped up without excess calories. These will often be mildly flavoured, and are more palatable than sports drinks although personally I find myself craving good old plain water when I hit the 4/5 hour mark in an event.

Salt Tablets

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If you don’t take to the taste of dissolvable electrolytes you can use a small oral tablet at regular intervals instead. These are easy to swallow and tasteless, although easier to forget to take, and can be fiddly to transport, if you lose your stash of tablets you can find yourself in big trouble.

Salty Snacks

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Some athletes simply prefer to take some pretzels with them, providing calories and electrolytes in one tasty combination. The only issue is how you plan to transport them, although salty snacks will be available at most aid stations.

Now we have an idea of how we are going to replace our calories and electrolytes, we need to understand how much to eat and when, there are two main problems people can run into, eating too little, or eating too much.

Under Fuelling

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Julie Moss collapses within 100M of the finish line at Kona 1982. Image credit Carol Hogan

When you bonk, it’s not something you can push through, it is your body quite simply breaking down like a car spluttering its way to a halt with an empty fuel tank. This can come almost without warning, and is often preceded by a feeling of strength as you throw yourself out of the saddle and hurl yourself up a hill, before your body starts to shake and you start to weave around the road. Once this has happened to you a few times you don’t take any chances out there and always make sure you have a spare gel or bar to fall back on, picking a cornershop flapjack up on your way through the next village when you use your last bar up. You can also find yourself in big trouble if you get lost and have to ride/run longer than you were expecting, nobody ever regretted taking extra food on a ride.

Over fuelling

While the effects are less dramatic than under fuelling, taking on too many calories poses a risk in itself. Once you’ve bonked a couple of times you find yourself taking all precautions to try and prevent it happening again, which can present other issues. The primary issue is stomach emptying rates, your digestive system can only work so fast, especially when exercising hard as it’s diverting the vast majority of its energy to the muscles. Think of how long it takes to digest a big Sunday Roast, now imagine trying to digest that while running an Ironman marathon rather than in front of the Antiques Roadshow. If you keep pushing food down your throat when your body is already full it will protest violently, and this is often the cause behind the gastronomical distress that athletes experience during a race. This can result in stitches, stomach cramps, violent bowel movements and/or vomiting, which you want to avoid at all costs.

The easiest way to avoid over fuelling is to ensure your carry some water without any carbohydrate content. A lot of athletes know they have to keep hydrated throughout a race, but if all they have is sports drinks they will start taking on 500ml+ an hour of sugary liquids along with energy gels, bars and real food, a recipe for disaster as the stomach simply can’t keep up with the calories you’re filling it with.

One point I’ve tried to hammer home is that what nutrition is incredibly individual, and you shouldn’t try to copy the nutrition plans of your training partners or favourite pro athletes. There are more factors that affect nutritional needs than I could possibly list without boring you all to death, but it’s important you experiment in your training. Standing at the side of the road draped over your handlebars struggling the find the energy to clip back in is a rite of passage in triathlon, and you have to get it wrong a few times to find out what works for you. It’s important you make these mistakes in training rather than on race day, so play around and find what works for you. Unfortunately the chances are you will experience GI distress to a greater or lesser extent during a long distance triathlon, which leads me onto arguably the most important piece of advice in this entire article.

Never trust a fart during an Ironman.

Road Tyres 101

Tyres, how much can be written about those pieces of rubber that sit on your wheels? Have you ever given a second thought to these since buying your bike? If not then you really should, they’re the contact patch between you and the road, and spending a few pennies on upgrading them can reap huge benefits, being the difference between you smashing a PB, sat on the side of the road fixing a puncture with everyone else streaming past you.

Tyre types

There are three types of tyre available to the cyclist, and not every type of tyre is compatible with every wheel, so pay attention to the wheels you have and the type of tyre you pick off the shelf. If in doubt, pop into your local bike shop for advice.

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Image Credit Swimbikesurvive

 

Clinchers

Far and away the most popular choice and what I’d currently recommend for the vast majority of my athletes, the standard tyre that you most likely have on your wheels. It holds a butyl/latex inner tube in place under high pressure, and if a sharp object makes its way through the tyre then this will pierce the inner tube, resulting in a puncture. This is relatively easy to fix and you’ll be back on the road in no time at all.

Tubular

There was a time when clincher tyres were heavy with poor grip, and the racing cyclist used tubular tyres, also known as tubs. These work in the same way as a non tubeless car tyre, the entire tyre inflates rather than a replaceable inner tube which means that if you get a puncture you have to change the entire tyre. This involves gluing the tyre onto your rim, so not only would you have to carry a spare tyre, you’d also have to carry the kit to affix it to the rim. As the glue takes 72 hours to set fully, you can’t even roll home safely, so very few cyclists will use them for training. They still have a place in racing when you’re followed by a team car, or in a time trial where a puncture is essentially a DNF and their marginally improved grip, ride feel and weight saving can pay off, but now that clinchers have come so far, there’s very little reason for the amateur triathlete to run tubs.

Tubeless

These work in a similar fashion to clinchers in that they are held in place by your rim, the difference being that there is no inner tube, with direct inflation of the tyre pinning itself in place. Tubeless tyres have improved rolling resistance (more on that later) and are more lightweight than clincher tyres with tubes, as well as providing unparalleled puncture resistance. Before inflating the tyre the majority of people then insert a sealant into the which will immediately seal any holes that appear as the result of a stray nail or shard of glass. If your tyre rips or you experience an especially large puncture then the tyre may not seal itself

So why isn’t everyone running tubeless? If you get a puncture which the sealant fails to repair as it is too large then, you’re up a famous creek without a paddle. Another problem is the historic lack of choice in the tubeless market, manufacturers like Hutchinson have been making tubeless tyres for years, but it’s only recently that the heavy hitters in the tyre market have been making tubeless tyres, and even more recently that wheel manufacturers have started bringing out a bigger range in tubeless ready rims. There is also the difficulty in getting them setup which is an art in itself, and unless you know what you’re doing is probably best left to a bike shop.

However I believe that these problems will be overcome and in five years time most of us will be running tubeless setups. The cycling market is traditionally very superstitious, however markets like triathlon are pushing innovation forward at an increased rate and bringing old fashioned cyclists around to the benefits of new tech.

So which system should you run? At the time of writing (early 2018) I would recommend clincher tyres to most for their ease of use and the large variety of compounds available. Most of us know how to change a puncture and tubeless would likely involve a reinvestment in wheels, something not appealing to many.

So which compound should you go for? What’s the difference between the tyres that came on your bike and the tyres that cost £50 a pop? Let’s look into the factors that make tyres such an important consideration.

Puncture Protection

Let’s start with the big one for many new triathletes, the dreaded puncture. If you are unlucky enough to ride over a sharp object it will try to make its way through your tyre and pierce your delicate inner tube, resulting in a flat tyre, which for some is as good as a DNF. However don’t think that more expensive tyres have better puncture protection as that’s just not the case. The more puncture proof material that you place between the tyre and the inner tube, the heavier the tyre becomes, and the more sluggish the handling, so it really is a balance between performance and puncture protection. You can even get solid tyres which are obviously completely immune to punctures, but handle like an absolute turd. This is acceptable for your hipster commuter making their way through Shoreditch, but for the discerning road cyclist is nothing short of heresy.

Grip

The biggest factor for most cyclists is the grip that a tyre offers, which allows you to corner faster and can be the difference between making a corner or ending up on the side of the road as your bike washes out from underneath you. Upon upgrading to a nice grippy tyre you’ll feel confidence in the way it sticks to the road, reducing the amount of speed you need to scrub off before cornering. Grip and TPI (threads per inch) tend to go hand in hand, so look for a tyre with a high TPI for improved grip.

Rolling Resistance

Without wanting to get too wrapped up in science here, this refers to how well the tyre rolls on the tarmac, and the energy which is saved from having a tyre with improved rolling resistance. This comes down to the rubber used and the friction that is created between the tyre and the road, using the same principle as fuel saving tyres that you see advertised for cars. Think of the difference between riding a mountain bike tyre on the road compared to a slick racing tyre, that’s an extreme example of rolling resistance.

Weight

Well it wouldn’t be an article on road cycling kit without discussing the weight of the item in question would it? Choosing high end tyres is a very economical way of saving weight on your bike, and it also on the most important area (the wheels) which allows for faster accelerations.

Width

How wide a tyre is dictates the amount of grip it offers, the pressure it can be run at, and how aerodynamic it is. The industry has made a huge lurch towards wider tyres and rims in recent years as testing suggests that a wider tyre run at a lower pressure provides much improved rolling resistance, comfort and grip. The only scenario where you may want to run a slimmer (under 25mm) tyre is in triathlons or time trials, which provides the triathlete with a bit of a problem.

A slimmer tyre will provide us with improved aerodynamics, but this may be outweighed by the improved rolling resistance of a slightly wider tyre. In years gone by 19mm tyres were the norm, where now it’s very rare to see a 23mm tyre as most roadies move towards 25s and 28s. I don’t have a silver bullet answer as everyone is different, however personally I advocate comfort and grip over aerodynamic performance. The differences will be incremental either way so feel free to experiment and see what works for you.

One word of caution is that many older road and even some newer TT frames, are designed to run 23mm tyres, and may not be able to run anything wider. This is dictated primarily by the clearance around the frame, although your brake calliper will also play a part in dictating how wide you can go. To add another variable into the mix, some tyres will balloon up larger than others, with some brands 25mm tyres coming up closer to 28mm. This can even be affected by the width of the rim you are using, it can be a real can of worms, however Schwable have created the below table to help people calculate what they can and can’t run on different rims. This is designed for their own tyres, however as long as you’re not at the extremes of the range you should be fine.

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Soft/hard rubber

A tyre manufacturer has to weigh up its options between how soft and grippy they want their tyre to be, and how many miles you’ll get out of it. Think of Formula 1 tyres which only last for an absolute max of an hour, or even the moto GP qualifying tyre which will start to go off after a single hard lap. The gripper a tyre is the shorter its lifespan, which means there is no perfect tyre for every situation. Some cyclists will use a very high mileage tyre such as the Vittoria Zaffiro for their training and a softer compound for racing. Personally I prefer to use a softer compound all year round as I like to get a feeling for how grippy my tyres are before I race, and I’m passionate about keeping it rubber side down.

Colour

Yes, colour can have an effect on the performance of the tyre, why do you think the vast majority of tyres are black? Rubber is black in it natural state, and to add pigment to a compound manufacturers have to reduce the silicon content. This is only marginal, but worth bearing in mind as you don’t want to find yourself climbing out ofa ditch and wondering if you’d be in a less compromising situation had you gone with plain old black.

Pressure

While it is a subject that warrants another article in itself, when choosing tyres it is worth checking the pressures you can run them at. Running tyres at a higher pressure gives a firmer ride and is preferred by those riding on smoother roads, however there is increasing evidence that running lower pressures actually reduces rolling resistance unless you are riding on roads that resemble glass. The graph below should give you a rough idea on what pressure to run, but some trial and error is involved to help you find a ride quality you feel suits you.

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Source: Frank Betro

So as you can see there is an awful lot more to the humble bike tyre than first meets the eye, and by now you are probably starting to realise there is no one tyre that is perfect for everyone. A city commuter will have very different demands to a time trialist, and someone who is riding on gravel paths will choose a different tyre to someone riding the perfectly smooth roads of Switzerland. Let’s look at some of the notable tyres on the market and what they provide:

Continental Grand Prix 4000s

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My go to tyre since I started cycling, I’ve never received a puncture or dropped it on a corner while running these, they have a solid puncture protection strip combined with a nice grippy compound that works well in all weathers. Traditionally I switch to their 4 season compound in the winter but just never got round to it this year and haven’t had any problems. These tyres are a staple choice of many road cyclists and it’s hard to go wrong.

Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons

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This is an evolution of the GP4000 tyre, using a harder compound that works better in the wet and at lower temperatures. This is combined with an increased puncture protection strip which increases weight and slightly affects handling slightly, however you’re unlikely to notice until you start giving it some real gas. These tyres also last longer than the GP 4000s, so many people choose to run them all year round.

Continental Gatorskin

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A staple of the city cyclist, these tyres are pretty much bulletproof. They’re an absolute nightmare to get on and off, but as the chances of anything making it through the thick puncture protection strip are so minimal, there’s a chance that once you’re attached them they’ll never need removing. All of this comes at great compromise to the grip of the tyre, and they are affectionately known as “Skaterskins” in some circles, after the number of riders who lose it in the corners trying to follow someone on superior tyres, especially in wet conditions. For the cyclist who simply wouldn’t be able to repair a puncture themselves or for a pure commuting bike they are an appealing choice, but unstable for the performance cyclist.

Specialized S-works Turbo

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I dabbled with these for a few months after picking them up on the cheap a couple of years ago. They rolled well, but didn’t inspire the confidence in the corners I had become accustomed to, not due to outright grip so much as the balance of the tyre. A perfectly functional tyre, but when I swapped them out for my 4 Seasons come winter, I wasn’t in a hurry to switch back to them come the following summer.

Specialized S-works Turbo Cotton

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This is one of the grippiest tyres on the market, boasting an impressive 320 TPI this tyre corners like it’s on rails, however is quite prone to punctures. An out and out race day tyre, which you’ll want to swap for the non-cotton version for training.

Pirelli P-Zero Velo

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The last name in vehicular tyres, Pirelli returned to the cycling scene last year with their velo series which have arrived to critical acclaim. While I have not tried them myself (as an F1 fan it’s on my to do list) I have heard great things from those who have tried them, although anecdotally they are not as resistant to puncture as similar tyres.

Pirelli P-Zero Velo 4S

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The winter version of Pirelli’s standard velo tyre, this tyre is the lighetst and highest performance winter tyre available, well suited for winter races such as duathlons. It is lightweight compared to other winter tyres and makes compromises with puncture protection to achieve this, however if you are looking to push hard in cold conditions, this tyre provides the highest level of grip in cold and wet conditions.

Pirelli P-Zero TT

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An out and out performance tyre it only comes in 23mm which is something of a shame as for longer events many prefer a wider tyre. However it is ultralight and boasts one of the lowest rolling resistances on the market, although this comes at the expense of puncture protection, making this the ideal tyre for PB hunters for who a puncture is as good as a DNF.

Vittoria Corsa G+

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Vittoria are interesting as they are at the forefront of graphene technology, an ultralight yet strong material used by frame manufacturer Dassi to reinforce their frames and by Vittoria to provide puncture protection. Many riders I know have moved to Corsa tyres in recent years, but given my six years of no punctures with Conti tyres I haven’t had a reason to join them myself. They also look the part with a tan sidewall on the tyres.

 

These are the tyres I’m currently familiar with, there are more manufacturers out there, and many more tyres available from the manufacturers above, however I would only be lifting information from other websites to include them here. Each manufacturer has a website which includes a wealth of information on each tyre and the technologies involved, so are a good place to start for more information.

To summarise, tyres fall into four main categories, all rounders, race specific, heavy duty and winter specific. This is the one component of the bike I’d always encourage people to maximise their budget for, as they can be the difference between a fast bike leg and sitting at the side of the road waiting for a lift home.

 

Introduction to TrainingPeaks

If you’re reading this the chances are you have just started using TrainingPeaks or are thinking of opening an account, so I will start this with a brief introduction and rundown of the benefits of using TrainingPeaks.

First and foremost it is a completely different ballgame to Strava, and a huge step forwards from Garmin Connect. Strava is a social platform where people give each other a slap on the back and compete against each other over segments, where TrainingPeaks is a piece of industry data analysis software. Thankfully it is only as complex as you want to make it, and has the potential to be very user friendly. It helps you monitor your fitness, form and fatigue levels to make educated decisions about your training, or if you’re working with a coach such as myself, it allows them to analyse the data, make educated decisions about your training, and set workouts for you to follow.

There are two types of athlete account, basic and premium, the benefits of a premium account are:

-Advanced workout data, access to a seemingly endless list of customisable charts, and insights into your fitness.

-Notifications from your coach, and ability for your coach to receive notifications from you when activities are uploaded/comments added

-Ability to plan future workouts

-Sync your calendar with Outlook, iCal and Google

-Tracks peak performances to allow you to see your best efforts

-Data editing allowing you to edit your fitness files by removing/editing erroneous data and using elevation correction

As you start with a 7 day premium trial when you open an account, for the purposes of this article I will write this article with premium users in mind

To get yourself started you need to create an account, which is very straightforward. Once you log in you will be taken to your calendar screen where you will see an empty calendar just begging to be filled with workouts, there are three ways of filling this calendar.

Firstly there is manual data entry, click on a date on the calendar view, select a workout type, and you will have the option to simply input basic data such as time, speed, pace, average HR and many more as shown below.

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As you start entering data it will calculate values for you as long as the box in the bottom left is selected. The more data you can provide, the more data it provides you in return, such as Training Stress Score (TSS) and Intensity Factor (IF). However if you are entering data manually the odds are you don’t have elevation or heart rate data, which is normally associated with GPS devices which brings us onto the next option.

Most athletes sync data directly from their GPS device to TrainingPeaks, often through a service such as Garmin Connect or Map My Fitss. This takes the GPS and associated HR, power, cadence e.t.c. data and uploads it as a GPX file, seamlessly giving you data within moments of finishing your workout for full analysis by you and your coach.

The final option is for those who use devices that don’t sync automatically or are temporarily refusing to for whatever reason. You can upload most fitness files to TrainingPeaks and it will do the rest for you.

Now your data is on TrainingPeaks, what’s next? First of all the initial workout screen looks quite different, if we uploaded a fitness file most of our data fields will be filled, like so:

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Also there are boxes on the right for description as well as pre/post activity comments. The description will normally include information from your coach, where the pre and post activity boxes are for you to fill out and engage with your coach through. Even if you’re not working with a coach they can prove useful for reference in future.

As an example I’m going to pull up a ride I did recently to Windsor and back with the club. It was a headwind on the way out with a lengthy cafe stop and a more spirited ride home.

To get into the nitty gritty of our workout we click on the “Analyze” tab at the top right of the page, which takes us to a screen where we can view a map (if GPS data is present), and a selection of graphs, let’s take a look at the most popular charts.

HR only

This chart is simply referred to as “graph” by TrainingPeaks, and hopefully your GCSE maths will kick in to help you decipher the information. When you first open the chart there will only be limited data, sometimes just the elevation profile (greyed out area running along the bottom) and heart rate(red line). To start number crunching , we need to click on the data values in the top right of the graph. By selecting a data field we’d like to see, such as RPM (cadence), we simply click on the tab and select “show”

HR and cadence

Now we have our cadence data, we can review it and look for relationships in our RPM and HR. However looking at such a large amount of data it’s difficult to make out exactly what happened, there were lots of points where I was freewheeling which causes the data to jump up and down erratically. To help us get some quality data we can use the smoothing bar (top left of the graph) to remove some of the erroneous data and give us a clearer picture.

Smoothed

There we go, much better, and I can now see that as expected, my heart rate increased when my cadence increased, no surprises there. However what if we wanted to look at an area that interests us? We can select an area by clicking and dragging the mouse to draw a shaded section over an selection of data, and click zoom at the top of the page to punch in for a better look.

Zoomed

From here we can take a closer look at any data which interests us. It may be that you want to look at your data on a climb or if you see a particularly high/low reading and want to know what caused it. Here we can see a few gaps in the data which are likely the result of traffic lights, or perhaps data dropout.

However interesting cadence and heart rate are, we probably want to see the bigger picture and all the data available to us. To achieve this we click on another value we’re not seeing, such as speed (shown here as KPH), and click “show all”. This gives us a much more comprehensive graph as shown below. I also selected “show zones” on BPM to give us some extra data. This is represented by the red horizontal bars, the lightest shade representing zone 1, and the darkest red zone 6.

HR zones

If this is a bit busy for you, you can start to remove irrelevant information. While I appreciate the fact that my device recorded temperature, it’s not really providing me with any useful data aside from the fact it was warmer in my house than in the Berkshire countryside. To remove the data I can click on the C (celcius) button at the top and select “hide”. If I wanted to focus on a singular data field such as speed, I could even select it at the top of the page and click on “hide others”, which would isolate my speed reading. There’s hours of fun to be had here, hours I tell you.

The final area worth highlighting is the relationship between the graphs and the map. If I look at the huge peak in speed, cadence and heart rate, I can hover my mouse over it on the graph and it will also highlight the point on the map where I went guns for glory through the Waterworks. Standard.

Waterworks

Next up is a selection of graphs which you can choose from the graphs button at the top of page (bar chart icon to the right), giving us a visual representation of peak HR and speed, along with time spent in each zone.

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There is a huge library available for you to look through, some far more useful than others (second by second breakdown of your ride anyone?). You can organise your data page to include the graphs and charts that matter to you and this will be saved for future workouts of the same type. Swimming and running charts work in a similar fashion, but using different data.

So that’s the basic features of workout analysis, now we move onto the “dashboard” view where we find the most powerful tools in TrainingPeaks, those that summarise our total fitness and fatigue. Before we start, let’s have a look at the PMC (performance management chart)

PMC

Here our TSS is displayed as red dots, our IF as blue dots, CTL as a blue line, ATL as a pink line and TSB as a yellow line. But what does this mean? I’ll explain each of these metrics in detail. I recommend you get comfy.

Training Stress Score (TSS)

This is the most important metric used by Training Peaks, it gives you an insight into how much stress was placed upon the body during the session.There are various versions of TSS which I will go into shortly. True TSS only requires power and duration to calculate, as these are two very objective ways of measuring your effort. This is perhaps a subject for another day, but all other methods of measuring exertion; pace, elevation and speed by weather/bad GPS data, and HR by other physiological factors such as illness or stress. By calculating the amount of exertion in a workout, TrainingPeaks calculates how much it will have improved your fitness, and how long it will take you to recover from the effort. 

At this point it is worth giving you some context for your TSS figures, 100 represents an hour flat out, or it could represent two hours at 50% effort, maybe even 4 hours at 25% effort. It could also represent half an hour at 200% of threshold,  but if you manage that your thresholds probably need updating.

rTSS

Although running power meters are starting to become available, most people still use a trusty GPS watch to track their runs, and rTSS will help you calculate an estimation of fatigue in absence of accurate power data. To calculate rTSS more data is required, namely speed (pace), duration, elevation gain and elevation loss. Using this data TrainingPeaks is able to estimate the level of exertion during the workout. This is not as accurate as using a power meter, but is understood to be the second most accurate way of measuring TSS.

sTSS

This is used to calculate TSS for swim workouts, and is less accurate than rTSS and pure TSS. This simply looks at the distance you covered over time to give you a number. TrainingPeaks still consider sTSS to be in beta so may be subject to change in the near future.

hrTSS

This simply uses your HR data over time to calculate a TSS value, however this is considered to be one of the less accurate ways of measuring your exertion. This is because heart rate takes much longer to respond to increases or reduction in exertion than other methods, and as a result is more suited to longer, steadier workouts than interval based workouts.

tTSS

This catchy little number is an experimental version or hrTSS which takes into account your resting heart rate to calculate TSS, however is considered to be the least accurate way of measuring TSS as it is still in an experimental stage, and will only be used where insufficient data is available to give you any other TSS score.

All of these values require threshold data to give you a value.What is an all out effort for you may be a leisurely Sunday morning jog for Mo Farah, and TrainingPeaks needs to know what your threshold values for each sport are. This is functional threshold power for TSS, threshold pace for rTSS, threshold swim pace (normally calculated over 1500M) for sTSS, threshold HR for hrTSS, along with resting and threshold HR for tTSS. Anybody who has trained with me will be aware of the initial onslaught of fitness testing early in the programme to give us the numbers we need to train to, and calculate fitness.

Phew! That was tough work I know, hope you’re still with me. Thankfully it’s all downhill from here. The next metrics we need to look at are CTL, ATL, TSB and IF, apologies for all the acronyms, it shall all become clear soon.

Critical Training Load (CTL)

This is represented as a thick blue line in the PMC and represents your long term training load. TSS can vary wildly throughout a week, shooting up on tough days and then dropping to 0 on rest days,  CTL averages this value and measures your training load over time. In an ideal world this would be gently increasing for the majority of the season, with ebbs and flows along the way as we recover from tough weeks of training and/or races. However we don’t live in an ideal world and this line will raise and fall as work, illness and family get in the way of structured training. On weeks like this the line will drop slowly though, and is there to ease your anxiety at the prospect of seeing a week of zeros in there TSS column following a period of illness or work commitments.

Fatigue (ATL)

This number averages your TSS over the last seven days to give you a figure to represent fatigue as. If this number is high your are promoting a change in your fitness, if this number is low you will likely perform better during workouts and at events. This line needs to ebb and flow more than others to ensure you are getting enough rest.

Form (TSB)

This stands for Training Stress Balance and is a mirror image of fatigue, representing how well you will perform at an event. You want your fatigue to be low and your form high when you take the start line at an event, and this can be achieved by using the dotted lines at the end of the PMC to calculate what form you will be in come race day. You can use this line to maximise your form on race day by adding and editing workouts in the days running up to your race to try to perfect your taper. This is trial and error for the most part, but you’ll get a feel for what works for you over the years.

Intensity Factor

Represented by blue dots on the PMS chart, this shows us how intense a workout was, short and sharp sessions will give a high value, with longer/easier workouts giving a much lower number. These blue dots at a glance can give you an impression of how intensive your workouts have been, and whether you need to increase or decrease the intensity of workouts given your goals and point in the season.

Along with the PMC are a number of other, more self explanatory charts available on the dashboard, such as pie charts denoting time spent training in each discipline, bar charts listing elevation per week, time spent in HR zones, pretty much all the data you could wish for.

That’s the very basics of TrainingPeaks, how to analyse a workout and how to analyse your overall fitness. Well done for making it this far through all the acronyms, I’ll reward you with a few top tips for getting the most out of the software.

-You can add target events by clicking on the day the event is held on in calendar view, and selecting events from the list of activities that appear. Here you can not only add the race type and targets, but it also gives you a countdown to your event on the home screen view, including predicted race form to keep you honest.

-If you upload an activity from a generic fitness file, or from devices that don’t recognise certain sports, click on the small logo (normally defaults to a stopwatch if unsure), and it will allow you to change activity type, ensuring it goes towards your totals.

-The data range on all charts can be changed, allowing you to evaluate your progress outside of the default 90 days. Settings for charts can be found by clicking the three horizontal lines found when you hover your cursor over the chart in question.

-All charts can be made full screen by clicking on the two arrows in the top right hand of each chart when your cursor hovers over it.

-Ensure all your data is up to date, threshold pace/power values should be updated every two months, along with your weight, threshold heart rate, and any other data TrainingPeaks asks you for, this will all help with accuracy of the data.

-TrainingPeaks can be used to track your equipment, allowing you to keep up to date with how many miles have gone on your shoes, wheels or tyres. These can add up rapidly without you realising and it’s important to replace them before it’s too late, in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

-TrainingPeaks can also be used to track calories, weight, sleep quality, hydration, steps, and many more values. Click on the appropriate day, select metrics, and input as much or as little data as you like. This can all be tracked via graphs on the dashboard.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, listen to your body over the numbers. TrainingPeaks is a fantastic tool and when used correctly will go a long way to improving your performance on race day, but at the end of the day you are the only one who really knows how you’re feeling. If TrainingPeaks is telling you to push but you feel exhausted, listen to your body.

Should You Buy A Second Hand Bike?

For many, the appeal of second hand bikes are just too much to bear, and for some it is the only way they’re going to be able to afford a bike, let’s not pretend otherwise, but there are a few questions you should ask before you throw your hard earned money at a bike on Ebay or gumtree.

Is it stolen?
I hate to break it to you, but if a stranger offers you a full time trial bike for £150, it’s almost certainly stolen. Bike theft is a problem that has been around for as long as bicycles themselves, and it’s not unheard of for thieves to break into bikes shops or the team buses of professional teams and make off with a small fortune’s worth of bikes. These will be sold at a fraction of their original value in an effort to get them moved as quickly as possible. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

While any bike will end up with bits of chipped paintwork from being ridden on the road, look out for any especially fresh gouges, which could be a tell tale sign that a pair of bolt cutters may have been involved in its acquisition.

If you are concerned a bike is stolen, check for a sticker on the frame which may indicate the frame is registered to the police, you can discretely take a photo of this and then call the police to raise your suspicions. Handling stolen property is an offence in itself, so you can’t afford to be too careful.

Is it damaged?
While there may be a few dishonest individuals who notice a crack in their frame and decide to sell it onto the first mug they can find, these people are (I’d like to think) few and far between, but there are several honest cyclists who may unwittingly sell you a cracked frame, which you may only discover several months down the line.. If the frame is aluminium or carbon fibre it’s a bit of a death sentence for the bike, where if it’s steel or titanium then a repair may be possible. Either way, these cracks can start out no thicker than a hair but soon grow into a major safety hazard. Carbon fibre bikes are made of strong stuff, but if you hit a pothole in the wrong way or it falls sideways this can crack the frame. Another prime suspect is over tightening bolts by neglecting to use a torque wrench. There is never a guarantee a used bike is crack free, and the biggest benefit you get with a new bike is you know the complete history of it and all the bumps and scrapes it’s been through.

Are the parts worn?
So you’ve seen a £1000 bike going for £300, and you’re tempted to snap it up. But before you do, check with the owner when it was last serviced, how many miles the components have got on them, when was the last time the bearings were replaced?

If they go slightly cross eyed when you ask these questions, back away slowly. This person clearly has no understanding of bike maintenance and is unlikely to have taken care of the bike as a result. Your £300 bargain isn’t such a good deal when you discover that it needs a new drivetrain (£150), new wheels (£250) and all bearings replaced (£100+), plus labour costs for the mechanic breathing life back into your bike. It is almost always cheaper to buy a complete bike rather than building it up piece by piece, which is what you may end up doing.

A quick once over of the bike should give you an idea of how much use it’s seen, look for worn chainring teeth, worn rims and how much is left on the brake pads for an indication of the life it has left in it.

Why is the owner selling it?
This can answer a lot of questions quickly, if they are selling it because it is the wrong size or they just never used it much, this bodes well. However if they are more vague about their motivations, this can send alarm bells ringing, especially if they ask you to meet them in a public place to view the bike, and demand a cash payment.

Do some homework on the bike
Ask the seller for the model, year and build of the bike (i.e. Specialised Allez Elite 2013), and do some reading on it before you view it. If you go to view the bike and it’s different to what’s advertised, ask them what parts have been upgraded/replaced, they should be able to give you a comprehensive list. If they can’t, or tell you the previous owner must have changed them, this isn’t a great sign, as the more owners a bike has had, the more likely it is to have encountered problems along the way.

So what can a new bike offer you that a used bike can’t?

Warranty
You’ll receive a warranty from your manufacturer, often this can be a limited warranty for components and a lifetime warranty on the frame. This means that if there is a failure due to a manufacturing fault, that you will be able to get a free replacement. If the failure resulted in a crash which put you out of work or caused additional expenses then you may be entitled to compensation from the manufacturer. It’s worth clarifying that if you crash the bike yourself, this won’t be covered by the warranty.

Right size
Many new cyclists neglect the benefit of a well fitted bike, and when buying a bike from a reputable retailer they will take some measurements to ensure the bike is a frame that fits you. Always ensure you ride the bike (new or used) even if it’s only on a turbo trainer, to ensure the bike is the right size for you. While bikes are very flexible, and a lot can be achieved by fiddling with saddle height/offset, different stems, swapping out spacers e.t.c. it does involve compromises to handling, and there’s nothing that can be done about a frame that is too big for you.

Right geometry
What’s the difference between frame size and geometry you may ask? If you have to ask, I’d strongly suggest you purchase from a local bike shop. As an example, let’s look at the Cervelo S5 and the Cervelo C3

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Cervelo S5
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Cervelo C3

 

These are two vastly different bikes, designed for two very different purposes. The S5 is a road aero frame, cutting through the air in a very effective fashion with a very stiff, uncompromising ride. The Cervelo C3 is a road endurance bike, designed for long days in the saddle, providing comfort at the expense of top end performance.

There are two main measurements we’re looking at here, the length of the top tube, and the height of the handlebars in relation of the saddle. The S5 has a long top tube with handlebars very low, allowing you to tuck in for ultimate aerodynamics. The C3 has a shorter top tube with handlebars which sit much higher, giving you a more comfortable, upright position at the expense of aerodynamics. You wouldn’t want to take a C3 to a top end road race, and you wouldn’t want to ride from Land’s End to John O’ Groats on an S5. Choosing the bike that is right for you will save a costly reinvestment further down the line when you realise you’ve bought a pup.

Finance
Most bike shops will offer interest free finance on new bikes, this can help you spread/stomach the cost of a new road bike, especially if you’re keen to get started but are experiencing cashflow issues. Just be careful you’re realistic about what you can afford each month.

This being said, I don’t want to put people off of the idea of buying second hand completely, if you know exactly what you want, what you’re looking for and how to spot when you’re about to be mugged off, then there are significant savings to be made. However if you’re unsure of where to start, and even if you only are on a tight budget, I would much rather my athletes spend their money on a brand new, well fitting and safe bike which is designed for the purpose they’re planning to use it for, than spending the money on a higher spec bike that doesn’t fit and may let them down and may need replacing in a matter of months.

How to Avoid Lane Rage

A lot of people dislike lane swimming, and I can’t say I blame them, it’s a necessary evil to share the same piece of water with others pounding up and down the lane, which can be frustrating for all involved as fast swimmers get held up and slower swimmers feel mobbed. If you’ve been swimming for a while, chances are you’ve either experienced, or been subject to the phenomenon of lane rage, where a swimmer becomes so agitated at having others interrupt their workout that they lash out at others. This is completely avoidable, so let’s dive into these murky waters to find the best way for such unpleasantries and to help everyone have a great swim.

Warning, may contain opinions

Be considerate
This should be the underlying message to take away from the article, you want your swim to be as enjoyable as possible, and you want everybody else to enjoy your workout as much as possible. In the same way a good driver spends more time focusing on the behaviour of other drivers than on themselves, the same is true for swimming in close confines. Everybody’s trying to get the most out of their session, treat people as you’d expect to be treated yourself.

Communicate with swimmers
If you find yourself at the end of the lane at the same time as your lane mate(s), make an effort to engage in some kind of conversation, even if it’s just asking if they want to go first. Adding a bit of humanity to the situation can help diffuse any potential tension.

Swim in an appropriate lane
This is the subject closest to my heart, people swimming in in the wrong lane. If you want to swim heads up breaststroke to keep your hair dry, that’s fine, it’s a free world, but please stay in the slow lane. Even if the fast lane is empty and you decide to hop in there instead to reduce the chance of getting splashed, if Adam Peaty turns up for a quick training session, he’s going to get in the fast lane and be held up by your leisurely swim. You’ll also get soaked by his powerful breaststroke kick. Please swim in the lane that best reflects your ability, and if you absolutely must swim in the fast lane as the slow lane is chock full, move back down as soon as a fast swimmer arrives. The same goes for michael phelps wannabes who decide that the fact the slow lane only contains one pensioner makes it perfect for a 400 IM.

Make other swimmers aware of your presence before entering|
This can be as simple as dangling your legs in the water for a minute or two before you enter the lane while you sort out your goggles and hat, but will make others aware that there will soon be another swimmer joining them. Especially important if the swimmers have split the lane rather than swimming in a circular fashion.

Check before pushing off
All competitive swimmers have been there, in the middle of a fast 400M time trial, on track for a rapid time, when a swimmer who lowered themselves into the fast lane and spent 10 minutes doing his pre flight checks decides to gently push off and begin his warmup just as you approach for a tumble turn. Read the lane check for other swimmers approaching before you push off, in the same way you look both ways before crossing the road.

Give way at the end of lengths
If a swimmer is directly behind you, he may inadvertently or otherwise give your feet a gentle tap. A light toe tap is generally considered to be a polite request to let them past at the end of the length, all it takes it to hold onto the wall for a second while they complete their turn, allowing you both to get on with your swim. Even if you don’t get a toe tap but sense a faster swimmer has been behind you for the majority of the length, giving way is polite and allows everyone to get on and enjoy their swim.

Don’t rest in the middle of the lane
If you are taking a break at the end of the lane, stand to the side of the to allow others to tumble turn easily. If you stand in the middle of the lane it becomes very difficult for others to continue swimming.

Consider moving down a lane for drillls/kick sets
This depends very much on how busy the lane is and the calibre of swimmers you’re sharing the water with, but if they’re doing sprints and you have 25M of sculling coming up, consider moving down a lane for a few minutes to avoid making enemies.

Swim in the correct direction
Most pools will have a clockwise lane next to an anti-clockwise lane, next to a clockwise, alternating across the pool. This is to prevent swimmers from clashing arms and legs, especially prevalent when swimming breaststroke or fly. Pay attention to the direction of travel which is normally advertised at the end of each lane to avoid agitating/confusing others.

Stick to your side
We know what it’s like, you’re 2K into a swim set and your mind starts to wander, you’re not paying attention in the same way as you were at the start of the set, and as you start thinking about what you’ll have for dinner you begin to migrate away from the rope. Before you know it you’re squeezing another swimmer against the opposite lane rope as you swim down the middle of the lane. While it happens to the best of us sometimes, it’s worth continually checking your proximity to the black line to ensure you’re swimming to the side of it rather than on top of it.

Only swim backstroke if you’re confident
As triathletes few of us will swim backstroke with any regularity, but it’s a good choice for swimming down as it loosens out the shoulders from the repetitive action of freestyle swimming. However if sharing a lane with others think carefully before you start breaking out backstroke, as it takes considerable practice to stay swimming in a straight line. I’ll put my hand up and admit my backstroke leaves a lot to be desired, so to avoid swimming into another lane companion, I practice it during quieter periods when I only have the lane ropes to contend with.

Put your ego in a box
One of the frustrations of swimming is how those who are young and very fit can flounder in the pool, and find themselves passed by people three times their age who they would leave for dead in other sports. Suck it up, and allow faster swimmers to overtake you. If a faster swimmer appears alongside you, back off a little bit to allow them to make the pass, rather than surging forwards in an effort to prevent them getting past you. The swimmer overtaking you is probably sprinting to get the pass made before a swimmer coming the opposite way hits them, back off momentarily and let them get on with their swim, you’d expect someone else to do the same for you.

Give the swimmer in front space
If you’re getting ready for a fast set and a swimmer you’re sharing the lane with is 5 seconds per 100 slower than you, give them a lot of space ahead of you in the pool before you start your set so you don’t immediately end up on their feet. It’s not rocket science but you’d be surprised how many people do just this.

Consider splitting the lane
If there are only two of you in the lane, consider communicating and splitting it down the middle, sticking to one side each. This can create issues with swimming adjacent to swimmers travelling in the same direction in other lanes, but it the two of you are the fastest in the pool yet still swimming at very different speeds, splitting the lane may be the most sensible way to ensure you both enjoy your swim. Keep an eye out for new swimmers arriving, as you’ll have to return to circular swimming to accommodate a third swimmer.

Butterfly is acceptable
Contentious I know, but those who want to swim fly have to train somewhere, and there aren’t butterfly specific pools or lanes. Many see it as an anti-social stroke due to the splash created from an effective fly kick, but as long as you’re not tearing up the middle of the lane, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s great fun and very rewarding to learn, while the dolphin kick saving you valuable seconds in shallow water during races.

Don’t be a dick
You won’t be able to get the swim you want to every week due to other swimmers who are slowing you down or otherwise interfering with your set, this is a fact of life and unless you rent a lane or swim in a private pool, you’re going to have to put up with other swimmers. If someone is swimming very fast and is in the fast lane, they’s well within their rights. If someone is swimming slowly in the slow lane, they’re well within their rights. If somebody’s swimming is really irritating you and interfering with your set, just try talking to them between lengths, they may be unaware of the impact their actions are having and you should be able to find a compromise.

Just like driving or cycling on the roads, nobody wants to have to slow down for others, but a bit of consideration and patience goes a long way to a positive swimming environment. If you swim at the same time each week you’ll slowly get to know the swimmers you share a lane with, make an effort to learn their swimming patterns and do what you can to ensure a harmonious environment for everyone to swim in. If it all gets a bit much, consider joining a swimming/triathlon club where things are better regulated and rules enforced, you’ll also have the bonus of coached feedback and other swimmers to compare yourself against.